Read The Last Flight Online

Authors: Julie Clark

The Last Flight (5 page)

Eva knew what it was like to almost have something within her grasp, only to have it yanked away again. It made you desperate, a hunger so fierce it blinded you to all the ways it might go wrong.

* * *

The plan turned out to be simple. They quickly transferred the contents of their bags, Claire pulling an NYU cap from hers and tucking her hair underneath. Then she took off her sweater and handed it to Eva. “My husband is going to leave no lead unfollowed. Every minute of this day will be unpacked and studied. Including airport security footage. We'll need to trade more than just tickets.”

Eva slipped off her coat and handed it to Claire, hesitating for a moment. It was her favorite, an army-green hooded one with all the zippers and inner pockets that had served her well for many years.

Claire put it on, still talking. “When you land, use my credit card to pull out cash, or buy a ticket somewhere else. Whatever you want. Just leave a trail my husband can follow.” Claire tucked a computer case into Eva's duffel, now resting at Claire's feet. Then she opened her toiletry bag and pulled out a plastic travel toothbrush, slipping it into one of the pockets of Eva's old coat, which Eva found odd. Oral hygiene seemed a strange thing to be prioritizing right now. From her wallet, Claire took a wad of cash and shoved it into another pocket, then dropped the wallet back into her own purse and held it out to Eva. “Do it fast, though, before he cuts everything off,” she said. “My PIN is 3710.”

Eva took it, though she didn't need Claire's money. Then she handed Claire her own purse, not even bothering to look through it, happy to be rid of all of it. The only cash she needed right now was tucked in a pouch against her skin, the rest of it far away, waiting for her.

Eva slid her arms into the pink cashmere sweater, feeling her escape drawing nearer, hoping Claire wouldn't lose her nerve. In ninety minutes she'd be in the air, on her way to Puerto Rico. Once on the ground, Eva knew a hundred ways she could disappear. Alter her appearance, then get off the island as fast as possible. Charter a boat. Charter a plane. She had enough money to do whatever she needed. She didn't care what Claire ended up doing.

A conversation she'd had with Dex a week ago floated back to her, spoken offhand at a basketball game.
The only way to get a fake ID is to find someone who's willing to give you theirs
. Eva nearly laughed aloud, Dex's words manifesting before her eyes in the handicapped stall at JFK's Terminal 4.

Claire fiddled with one of the zippers on the coat she now wore, and Eva thought about who might be waiting for her on the ground in Oakland. They might pause for a moment when they saw Claire exit the airport wearing Eva's familiar coat. But that's where the similarities ended.

“I hope you don't mind,” Eva said, pressing her prepaid phone to her chest, “but this has all my pictures. A few saved voicemails from my husband…” She couldn't risk Claire discovering that it had no contacts, no photos, and only one number in her call history. She held up Claire's. “But I'll need you to disable your password so I can scan the e-ticket. Unless you want to print a ticket and keep your phone?”

“And let him track me that way? No thanks,” Claire said, swiping through her settings and disabling her password. “But I do need to grab a number first.”

Eva watched as Claire took a pen from her purse and scribbled something on the back of an old receipt.

Just then, the flight to Oakland was announced. Boarding had begun. They looked at each other, fear and excitement mingling on their faces.

“I guess this is it,” Claire said.

Eva imagined Claire boarding the flight to California and getting off at the other end. Walking out into the bright sunshine without a clue of what she might find there, and she tried not to feel guilty. But Claire seemed scrappy. Smart. She'd figure something out. “Thank you for helping me start over,” Eva said.

Claire pulled her into a hug and whispered, “You saved me. And I won't forget it.”

And then she was gone. Out of the stall, disappeared back into the busy airport, security cameras recording a woman in a green coat and NYU baseball cap pulled low over her eyes, walking toward a different life.

Eva locked the door again, leaning against the cool tile wall, and let all of the adrenaline from the morning leak out of her, leaving her limbs weak and her head fuzzy. She wasn't free yet, but she was closer than she'd ever been.

* * *

Eva waited inside the locked stall as long as she could, imagining Claire flying west, racing the sun toward freedom.

“Boarding for Flight 477 with service to Puerto Rico has begun,” a voice announced overhead, and she stepped out and strode past the long line of women waiting. Out of the corner of her eye, she watched her reflection in the mirror and marveled at how calm she appeared, when inside she felt like dancing. She pushed up the sleeves of Claire's pink cashmere sweater, washed her hands quickly, and hitched her new purse over her shoulder before exiting back onto the concourse.

At the gate, she waited on the periphery, her eyes scanning the crowd out of habit, and wondered if she'd ever learn how to be in a space without having to assess it for risks and danger. But everyone around her seemed to be absorbed in their own thoughts, anxious to escape the frigid New York temperatures for a warmer climate.

A harried gate attendant pulled a speaker close to her mouth and said, “Our flight this morning isn't full, so any travelers wishing to fly standby should check in at the counter.”

People in vacation clothes jockeyed for spots in line, wanting to be first in their boarding group, but with only one gate attendant on duty, things were chaotic and slow to begin. Eva made sure to position herself on the edge of a loud family of six. Inside her purse, Claire's phone buzzed. Curious, she pulled it out.

What the fuck have you done?

It wasn't the words that stopped her, but the vitriol behind them, poisonous and familiar. Then the phone rang, jolting her nerves and making her nearly drop it. She let it go to voicemail. It rang again. And then again after that. She peered toward the Jetway, counting the people ahead of her, urging the line to move faster. To board and get into the air, to be on her way.

“What's the holdup?” a woman behind her asked.

“I heard the hatch wasn't opening right.”

“Great,” the woman said.

When it was Eva's turn, she handed the phone to the flight attendant, who scanned her e-ticket without even glancing at the name. She handed it back to Eva, who promptly turned it off and dropped it back into Claire's purse. The line crept forward, Eva on the threshold of the Jetway, buried in a long line of impatient travelers. Someone's bag bumped her from behind, knocking her purse to the ground and sending Claire's things skittering in different directions.

As she bent down to gather everything, she glanced back toward the concourse. Above her, the line had closed around her, blocking her from the gate agent's view, and she realized how easy it would be to slip away. The flight wasn't full. They might not notice her empty seat. She was scanned onto the flight, and Claire was already on her way to Oakland.

Eva had only a split second to make the decision. She could see how she'd do it. Step to the side and lean against the wall and fake another phone call. She'd be just another traveler, consumed with her own life, on her way somewhere new. She could leave the airport, head into Brooklyn and find a hair salon willing to take a walk-in wanting to dye her hair brown. Then pay cash for a later flight using Claire's ID. There could easily be two Claire Cooks, traveling to two completely different destinations. And once she landed and disappeared, the data would become irrelevant.

And so would she.


Tuesday, February 22

It isn't until an hour into the flight that my heart stops pounding, that I take the first deep breath I've had in years. I glance at my watch. The plane I'm expected to be on is somewhere over the Atlantic right now, thousands of miles away. I picture it landing in Puerto Rico, taxiing into the terminal and discharging vacationers, Eva slipping by everyone, invisible. Rory will have discovered what was in the FedEx package by now, and when he starts to look for me, he'll be searching for Claire Cook or Amanda Burns. He doesn't have a clue who Eva James is. It was almost too easy.

A memory arrives, of a night when I was thirteen, sitting on the porch with my mother. I'd been the target of a group of popular girls for several weeks. They followed me, whispering cruel things, waiting until I was alone in the hallway or the bathroom to deliver their cutting remarks. My mother had wanted to intervene, but I wouldn't let her, believing that would only make it worse. “I wish I could just disappear,” I'd whispered. Together we watched a three-year-old Violet run around the small yard, the roses swaying in the slight evening breeze.

“If you pay attention, Claire, solutions always appear. But you have to be brave enough to see them,” she'd said, plucking my hand out of my lap and squeezing it in hers.

Her words had confused me then. But I realize now she'd been giving me advice to hang on to, for later. I'd been trapped between two terrifying choices—Rory's anger or the kind of people Nico might have sent to help me—and then Eva came along and pulled me out.

I think about Eva, of what she's lost, and I hope that wherever she ends up, she can find a way to be at peace with herself. I picture her escaping to a remote village somewhere, finding a small house by the ocean, her blond hair contrasting with skin darkened by a sun that cascades like forgiveness across her shoulders. Far away from everything. A fresh start, like the one I'm hoping to create for myself.

How extraordinary that we found each other.

A bubble of joy tumbles around inside of me, and I laugh out loud, startling the man sitting next to me. “Sorry,” I say, and turn toward the window, watching the land below us transform from city into large stretches of farmland, the miles between me and Rory growing with every second.

* * *

Six hours later, the plane bumps down in Oakland. We circled over San Francisco, and though the pilot pointed out landmarks such as the Bay Bridge and the Transamerica building, they'd barely registered amidst my excitement. I wait my turn to deplane, the crowd of people pressing in on me, and close my eyes, thinking of a game Violet and I used to play called Would You Rather. We'd spend hours creating impossible, hilarious choices:
Would you rather eat ten cockroaches or have liver for dinner every night for a year?
I smile to myself, wondering what Violet and I might come up with now.
Would you rather be married to an abusive but rich man or start over somewhere new, with no money and no identity?
The decision seems easy to me.

Finally, the door opens and people start to file off the plane. I take my place among them, pulling my cap low over my eyes, at least until I'm out of the airport and away from security cameras. The first thing I need to do is call Petra and tell her I'm in Oakland. And then find a cheap motel that won't ask a lot of questions. With only four hundred dollars in my wallet, I have to be smart.

When we deplane, I slip around everyone and go in search of a pay phone. But when I get beyond the gates, I realize something's different. Several clumps of people are gathered around television monitors in the various bars and restaurants, hushed.

Something must have happened.

I sidle up to a group outside Chili's and peer over people's shoulders. The television is set to a cable news station, but the volume is turned down. A somber-looking woman is talking, and the screen flashes her name—Hillary Stanton, NTSB Senior Communications Officer. I read the closed-captioning at the bottom of the screen.

We don't know yet what caused the crash, and it's too early to say.

The screen cuts to a news anchor, and I get a glimpse of the headline banner that was previously covered by the black closed-captioning text.

The Crash of Flight 477.

I read it again, trying to rearrange the words to mean something different.

Flight 477 was my flight to Puerto Rico.

I push closer. More text flashes up, this time from the anchor.

Authorities won't speculate on the cause of the crash just yet, though they have indicated the unlikelihood of any survivors. Flight 477 was heading to Puerto Rico, with 96 passengers on board.

The picture flashes to a live shot of the ocean, pieces of wreckage floating on the surface.

The ground seems to move beneath me, and I wobble into the man standing next to me. He steadies my elbow and hangs on long enough to make sure I don't fall. “You okay?” he asks.

I shake him off and push through the crowd, unable to reconcile what I'm seeing on the television screen with the memory of Eva still sharp in my mind—whose voice I can still hear, whose smile I can still see as the bathroom stall door closed behind me.

With my head down, I make my way through the concourse, suddenly aware of how many television screens there are, all of them broadcasting what's happened. I swallow the bile creeping up the back of my throat and locate a pay phone next to the restrooms.

With trembling fingers, I pull out the receipt where I'd jotted down Petra's number and dial. A voice directs me to insert one dollar and twenty-five cents. I dig around in Eva's wallet until I've counted out five quarters and slip them into the slot, one at a time, my heart racing.

But instead of ringing, I hear three tones and an automated voice saying,
We're sorry, this number is no longer in service.

In my haste to reach her, I must have misdialed, double-entered a digit by accident, so I take a deep breath, willing my hands to stop shaking. I collect the quarters from the change receptacle and dial again, slower this time.

Again I'm told the number is no longer in service.

I replace the receiver, feeling as if I've separated from reality, lifting straight out of my body. Wandering over to a deserted bank of chairs, I collapse, staring across the concourse. People move in and out of my field of vision, pulling suitcases, corralling children, speaking into cell phones.

I must have copied the number wrong. I think back to the bathroom stall, scribbling Petra's number, adrenaline causing my attention to spread thin like scattershot.

And now, I'm completely cut off.

Across the way the television screens change again, pulling my attention back.

The names of the passengers have not been released yet, but NTSB officials say they will be holding a press conference later this evening.

I realize how vulnerable I'm about to become, how things like this take hold, grabbing the heartstrings of the nation. First, the grisly details, the speculation about what went wrong. Then the human interest. The victims. Their lives, their hopes. Their faces, smiling, laughing, unaware of how it will end. Because of who Rory is, my story will be amplified, my minutes of anonymity slipping away at an alarming rate. My image will soon be splashed across the media, recognizable to anyone looking. I'm about to become as infamous as Maggie Moretti. Yet another tragedy Rory will have to bravely endure. And I'll be stuck, with very little money, no identification, and nowhere to hide.

My eyes land on Eva's purse, and I reach into it and pull out a ring of keys and her wallet. I pocket the keys and open the wallet, memorizing the address on her license.
543 Le Roy.
I don't hesitate. I walk out of the airport, into the bright California sun, and hail a cab.

* * *

We speed along a freeway, the San Francisco skyline peeking between industrial buildings on the east side of the bay, but it barely registers. Instead, I'm remembering Eva's final moments in the bathroom stall with me, determined to carve out a second chance for herself, not imagining that she never would. I rest my head against the window and try to focus on the cold glass pressing against my skin.
Just a little bit longer
. I can't let myself fall apart until I'm behind closed doors.

Soon, we've exited onto streets crowded with college kids, colorful and upbeat. I try to imagine what Rory might be doing right now. Most likely, he's on his way back to New York, having canceled the event in Detroit. Quietly depositing the forty thousand dollars back into the bank and hiding everything else in his secret drawer.

I stare out the window as we pass the university, students crossing the street in a haphazard way, oblivious the way only college students can be. We skirt around the eastern edge of campus and into a residential neighborhood on the north side with hills and winding streets. Houses, duplexes, and apartments sit side by side among tall redwood trees, and I think about what I'll find when I unlock Eva's front door. An intruder stepping into the home she shared with her husband, forever frozen exactly as she left it. Looking at their photographs. Using their bathroom. Sleeping in their bed. I shudder and try not to think that far ahead.

The driver leaves me in front of a white, two-story duplex with a long front porch and two identical doors anchoring each end. The right side is curtained, closed off from prying eyes. A large pine tree casts part of the porch in shadow, the soil beneath it looking dark and fresh. The left side is vacant, the windows bare, revealing empty rooms with crown molding, a red accent wall, and hardwood floors. I'm relieved I won't have to answer any questions from a neighbor, asking who I am or where Eva went.

I fumble with the keys, finally finding the right one, and push the door open. Too late, I realize there might be an alarm, and I freeze. But all is silent. The air smells of closed rooms and a faint trace of something hovering between floral and chemical—there and then gone.

I close and lock the door, stepping carefully past a pair of shoes that look as if someone kicked them off a few minutes ago, straining my ears for any kind of noise, any sound of another person. Yet despite the clutter, the house feels utterly still.

I set my bag down by the front door in case I need to leave quickly, and creep over to peek into the kitchen. Empty, though there's an open can of Diet Coke on the counter and some dishes in the sink. A door leads to the backyard, but it's locked with a chain across it.

I take the stairs slowly, listening hard. Only three rooms—a bathroom, an office, and a bedroom, clothes dropped on the bed and floor as if someone had left in a hurry. But I'm alone in the house, and I let out the breath I'd been holding.

Back downstairs, I collapse onto the couch and tip my head forward, resting it in my hands, and finally allow the day's events to catch up to me. The panic I felt, followed by the thrill of having slipped past everyone.

And then I think of Eva somewhere on the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean. Whether it hurt when the plane hit the water, if the moments leading up to impact were long, filled with terror-filled screams and crying, or if they were cut short by lack of oxygen. I take several deep breaths, trying to calm down.
I'm safe. I am okay
. Outside, a car passes through the silent neighborhood. In the distance, some bells chime.

I lift my head and take in the framed abstract prints on the wall and the soft armchairs flanking the couch. The room is small but cozy, the furniture high quality but not extravagant. Exactly the opposite of the home I just left behind.

There is a well-worn groove in the armchair angled toward the television, but the rest of the furniture looks pristine, as if no one has ever sat there. Something about the room nags at me, and I try to put my finger on it. Perhaps it's the way it was left, as if someone had just stepped away for a few minutes. I scan the space, trying to figure out where her husband's hospital bed might have been. Where the hospice workers might have counted pills, measured medication, washed their hands. But all evidence is gone. Not even a divot in the carpet.

Against the far wall, a bookshelf is crammed with books, and I wander over and see titles about biology and chemistry, with a few textbooks on the very bottom shelf.
I quit my job to take care of him.
Perhaps she was a professor at Berkeley. Or maybe he was.

From the kitchen comes a buzzing sound, loud and jarring in the silent house. When I get to the doorway, I notice the black cell phone on the counter, tucked between two canisters. I pick it up, confused, remembering the one Eva used at the airport in New York. The push notification is from one of those text apps that disappear after a set amount of time, from a contact named D.

Why didn't you show up? Did something happen?

The phone buzzes in my hand with another message, nearly making me jump.

Call me immediately.

I toss it back on the counter and stare at it, waiting for another text, but it remains silent, and I hope whoever D is, they're done asking questions for the night.

I step toward the sink and look through the small window overlooking a tiny backyard. It's surrounded by shrubs and bisected by a brick walkway leading to a gate in the back fence. I imagine Eva standing here, watching twilight fall as it is now, coloring the shadows in deep purples and blues as the sky darkens, while her husband lay dying.

The phone buzzes again, the sound reverberating around the empty kitchen, and a sense of foreboding descends. The empty house offers itself up to me, yet reveals nothing.

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