Authors: James Renner
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The scoutmaster paced back and forth in front of the morgue, a cigarette in one hand and a black plastic garbage bag in the other. He was a tall man in layers of flannel, skin stretched from the sun and hard living. He looked up as the coroner's sedan turned into the gravel lot behind the low brick building, and then flicked what remained of his Pall Mall onto the rocks.
“Christ, Mason, I called you half an hour ago,” he said to the potbellied man who pried himself from the car.
“Sorry,” muttered the coroner. “Let's go inside, Reggie.”
Before 9/11, Earl Mason's gig as coroner of Somerset County, Pennsylvania, had been relatively predictable. Someone died too young, he'd send the body up to Johnston so doctors could cut it open and find out why. The others, he'd pretty up and place inside a casket in his funeral home on North Street, in Shanksville.
And then Flight 93 crashed into the ground out near the old strip mine in Stonycreek, killing forty passengers and four hijackers.
Mason was forced into the spotlight, not the most comfortable place to be for a paunchy man with a slight lisp. He became the face of Somerset County, the person reporters called first. Everyone wanted details about the crash site, details only a coroner could provide. They wanted him to talk about what happens to the human body when it collides with the earth at something close to the speed of sound.
He learned quickly how his words might be spun toward an agenda, a realization that became the seed of countless nightmares. He once told CNN, “There were no human remains for me to identify.” What he had meant was that the force of the impact had vaporized the bodies as well as the plane itself. But the conspiracy nuts had latched onto his poor choice of words, used it to support some cockeyed theory that the plane was empty when it crashed. Point of fact: there
human remains to identify. Before the sun had set on September 11, 2001âfourteen years in the past, nowâMason himself had found a single Converse shoe near the crater in Stonycreek. Inside the shoe was a severed foot. A hunter named Burgess had discovered a suitcase full of belt buckles four miles from the impact site, undamaged except for a light staining of blood on the destination card.
Mason was the curator of what remained of Flight 93, of the things the passengers left behind. The stress caused him to overeat and he was pushing three hundred pounds. And so when Reggie Porter called to tell him that one of his scouts had found a dismembered arm while picking up litter around the perimeter of the Flight 93 memorial, he was in no real hurry to drive to the office.
Mason and the scoutmaster entered the lobby through a set of automatic doors, then turned left into a room full of stainless steel tables and cabinets. The stench of formaldehyde made Reggie cough into the sleeve of his flannel coat.
“Let's see what we've got,” said Mason, taking the trash bag from Reggie and upending it above the exsanguination table. A thick, hairy arm tumbled out. It had been severed above the elbow, its fingers curled in a tight fist.
Reggie grimaced at the remains. “A Tenderfoot found it a few feet into the woods, downhill from the memorial. Stepped in to take a piss. Said it was just laying there.”
“It's a joke,” said Mason. “He's playing a joke on you.”
“I don't think so,” said Reggie.
“This couldn't have come from Flight 93. This appendage shows no sign of decomposition. Also, I don't think it's human.”
“Look here.” Mason rolled the arm over with the tip of a pen and pointed. The position of its thumb was lower than it should be. It looked sort of like a primate's hand, like a chimpanzee hand. The skin was wrinkled and worn and padded.
“Where did Bobby Clutter get a monkey's paw?”
“Yes, well, that is the twenty-five-thousand-dollar question.” Mason snapped on a pair of latex gloves and pulled back on the index finger, slowly. “Hmm,” he said.
“There's something in its hand.”
The coroner walked to a cabinet and returned with a metal probe, a pair of tweezers, and a scalpel. Mason used the scalpel to cut through its thumb and a black ooze bubbled from the open wound.
“Jesus,” said the scoutmaster.
Mason maneuvered the probe under the clenched fingers and reached in with the tweezers. With a tug, he pried loose a man's watch. It was expensiveâthe timepiece of some upper-management VP.
“There's writing on the back,” said Mason. “It's engraved.”
“What's it say?”
Mason squinted. “It says, âRIP, Tony Sanders. 1978 to 2012.'”
“Then you're right, it couldn't possibly be from the crash.”
For a moment Mason didn't answer. He was trying very hard not to register the fear and puzzlement that was threatening to squeeze the air from his lungs. “Of course not,” he managed to say.
“So where'd it come from?”
Mason shrugged. “Not Flight 93,” he said. Then, with effort, he set the watch back on the table and escorted the scoutmaster out of the building. “Thanks for bringing this in, Reggie. Best not to talk about it any more than you already have. I don't need reporters knocking on my door. And there's some logical explanation, I'm sure.” His mouth had gone dry and his head was throbbing with the beginning of a migraine.
The coroner thanked the scoutmaster again and waved, once, before turning back inside. Alone, Mason jogged quickly to the examination room.
I'm remembering wrong
, he told himself
But he knew better. He'd had plenty of time to memorize their names. He heard them in his dreams.
He walked briskly to a shelf and pulled out a large black binder. He set it next to the simian hand and flipped it open. It was Flight 93's passenger manifest. His finger swept down the list of names. There.
He looked over to the watch resting on the table as if he expected it to explode. It didn't. His eyes fell on the half-opened hand.
The monkey's paw, empty now, revealed another secret.
Tattooed into the wrinkled skin of its palm was a bright red swastika.
Any state, any entity, any ideology that fails to recognize the worth, the dignity, the rights of man, that state is obsolete.
Â Â Â Â Later, Jack had time to wonder about how it all began. He understood how it ended. It ended in betrayal, destruction, death. But how did it begin? Could he follow the thread of his story back to a single moment in time where he might have saved everyone and everything? He could. He could. And he was surprised to find that this moment was rather mundane.
The day classes let out for summer, Jack returned to his apartment with a cardboard box of History Channel DVDs and found a blinking red light on his answering machine. His suite was on the sixth floor of a six-story tenement on Lakeshore and the elevator was on the fritz. Again. Out of breath, he set the box on the dining room table, aware, suddenly, of the emptiness here. This was not a home.
There was nothing on the walls. No photographs or paintings. It even smelled emptyâthat generic foodstuff aroma, ghosts of a thousand Stouffer's frozen dinners. The blinking red light demanded his attention. He pushed the button. It was his sister, Jean.
“Jack. The Captain thinks I'm her again. He's back in Vietnam. He's getting closer. Thought you should know.”
“The Captain.” That was their father, a retired Continental Airlines pilot. During the war he had flown cargo in and out of South Vietnam and had apparently taken up with a Saigon prostitute named Qi while living there. When he got really bad, the Captain called his daughter “Key,” as in “
” He would yell at her: “No more Uncle Sams, Qi! Not for you.” Once, he had backhanded Jean so hard he'd given her a black eye. Dementia. Alzheimer's maybe.
Jack didn't want to go back to Franklin Mills.
But he did.
Mostly, though, he didn't.
Jean wasn't calling to ask him to come home. She wanted to keep him in the loop was all. The Captain was coming in on final approach and it was likely to get bumpy before the end.
He didn't want to go back. Franklin Mills was full of traps. Jack traps. Because Samantha was there, too.
. But the only warmth in the entire apartment was a purple loofah a woman named Danielle had left behind three years ago.
Jack tossed some clothes into a bag. Ten minutes later he was in his rusting Saturn, driving south on 77, out of Cleveland, toward a town on the edge of a deep lake, a town with a single traffic light. A town full of secrets.
Â Â Â Â By the time he got there his father was sleeping again. The old man dozed in the hospital bed Jean had set up in the living room, where they used to watch monster movie marathons. Labored breaths ruffled the Captain's bushy white mustache back and forth like dune grass.
“He rearranged the fridge today,” Jean whispered. “Said he wanted to help clean. What he did was he condensed all the half-empty jars to make room. He put the jelly in with the pickles and the ketchup in the pepper jar.” She laughed quietly. “He's getting worse.”
Jack led his sister onto the back porch, stepping lightly through the sliding glass door and quietly closing it behind them. Through the budding boughs of the oaks behind the house they could see the glassy black surface of Claytor Lake, a private swimming hole that had shuttered in 1984. All that remained was a rickety lifeguard stand that would surely tip over in the next summer storm. The breeze had a cool bite, like it was early April instead of the last day of May, but Jack didn't mind.
Jean lit a Winston Light, their mother's brand. She looked a lot like their mother: that straight hair the color of wet sand, those thin eyebrows and little mouth.