Read The Last Flight Online

Authors: Julie Clark

The Last Flight (10 page)

BOOK: The Last Flight
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Relief spread across the woman's face when she saw Eva. “I fell,” she said. “Missed that last stair and took a tumble. I think my ankle is sprained. Could you help me inside?”

Eva glanced down the street, thinking again of the man at the gas station, of the piece of paper he slipped into his coat. She didn't have time for this. But she couldn't leave the woman on the porch. “Sure,” she said.

Eva helped the woman stand and was surprised at how tiny she was. Barely five feet tall and easily into her sixties, she was wiry but strong. She gripped the railing and pulled herself up the steps as Eva supported her, hopping on one foot until she got to the top. Eva gave her a moment to catch her breath, and together they made it to the door and into her apartment.

Warm-colored rugs covered the floor, contrasting with a cream-colored couch. One wall in the dining room had been painted a deep red, and half-emptied shipping boxes cluttered the corners. Eva helped her to a chair, and the woman sat.

“Do you want some ice?” Eva asked, impatient to move things along. She needed to contact Dex, to figure out what was going on and what she should do, not play nursemaid to her neighbor.

“Let's start with names,” she said. “I'm Liz.”

Eva fought back a growing panic, feeling the minutes slipping away, caught in some kind of a small-talk time warp with her chatty neighbor. But she smiled anyways and said, “My name is Eva.”

“Nice to finally meet you, Eva. Yes, I would love some ice. Straight through there, if you don't mind.”

Dismissed, Eva entered the kitchen, which was bare except for a few plates and glasses on the counter by the sink. In the freezer, Liz had a tray of ice cubes that Eva broke apart and piled into a dishtowel, winding the top closed. She grabbed a glass from the dish rack next to the sink and filled it with water, noticing how her hands trembled as she carried them both back to the living room and handed them to Liz. She was about to make her excuses and leave when Liz said, “Have a seat. Keep me company.”

With another quick glance toward the window and the empty street beyond, she lowered herself onto a chair that allowed her to keep an eye on things outside.

Liz's smile grew wider. “I don't know very many people here yet,” she said. “I'm a visiting professor from Princeton, teaching two classes this semester.”

Eva smiled politely, only half-listening as Liz talked about how much she was looking forward to a California winter, and ran through the encounter with Brittany again. What she'd said. The way her hands shook. How desperate she'd been to make the deal. Any deal. Gradually, Eva's mind began to slow, the panic subsiding. She'd been in tight spots before, and she reminded herself that she hadn't done anything illegal. She was safe for now in Liz's living room, with a clear view of the street, listening to Liz explain why she preferred to rent an apartment rather than subject herself to the politics of faculty housing. She could practically feel her blood pressure lowering.

“Now tell me,” Liz said. “What do you do? Where are you from?”

Eva tore her gaze from the window and delivered her standard reply. “I grew up in San Francisco. I'm a server at DuPree's in downtown Berkeley.” And then she swung the conversation back to Liz. “So you're a professor? What do you teach?”

Liz reached for her water and took a drink. “Political economics,” she said. “Economic theory and the accompanying political economic systems.” She laughed. “I promise you, it's a fascinating subject.”

She pulled the ice off, and Eva watched as she studied her ankle, turning it cautiously. Liz looked up and grinned. “Not a sprain. Which is a relief, because launching a new semester on crutches would have been a challenge.”

There was something about Liz's voice, deep and resonant despite her small size, that calmed Eva. It vibrated inside of her, causing her to breathe deeper. To listen harder. Eva imagined her at the front of a large lecture hall, her voice carrying into the very farthest corners. The scratch of pens on paper or the quick tapping on laptops, students eagerly recording everything she said.

From her position on Liz's couch, Eva saw the government sedan glide down the street and slow to a stop at the curb. The same man who'd been talking to Brittany at the gas station got out and walked up their front path.

Her mind began connecting dots she hadn't even known were there, passing over the question of how he'd found her house to its inevitable answer—there must have been someone else following her. Someone she hadn't seen.

Eva stood suddenly and moved toward Liz. Away from the window. “Are you sure you don't need to see a doctor?”

Liz put the ice back on her ankle and said, “I'll tell you what I need. I need you to dump out this crappy tap water and fill my glass with vodka. Get one for yourself too. It's in the freezer.” The faint sound of knocking from next door caught Liz's attention. “I think someone's knocking on your door,” she said.

Eva peeked through the blinds and saw the man slide something into her mail slot. Every nerve in her body tingled with fear, urging her to run. She glanced through the doorway and into Liz's kitchen, imagining herself tearing out the back door, through the back gate and down the alley, sprinting all the way to Dex's, demanding answers.

But she took a deep breath, reminding herself that all she'd done was talk to a woman in the park. She hadn't sold her anything, or even showed her anything.
Play through
. Advice Dex used to give her in the early days when she'd get scared.
Only guilty people run. That's exactly what they're waiting for you to do. So don't do it.

“I've seen this guy before,” Eva lied. “He's selling subscriptions to an alarm company. You have to pretend like you're not home, otherwise he'll talk your ear off.”

“I hate door-to-door salesmen,” Liz said. If she thought it odd he didn't come to her door next, she didn't mention it.

Eva stood and said, “I think I'll go get those drinks for us.” A drink was the very least she deserved.

Claire

Wednesday, February 23

I leave Eva's office strewn with paper and move across the hall, determined to know for certain what I'm beginning to suspect—that nothing Eva told me about herself, or what she was running from, was true. I throw open the door to her closet, pawing through the hangers, looking for evidence of the husband she adored. At the very least, there should be big, empty spaces where his clothes used to be. But all I find are a few nice tops, a couple dresses, boots, and flats. All of it Eva's. I yank open dresser drawers, finding shirts, jeans, underwear, and socks, flashes of my unfamiliar new profile startling me in the mirror, so similar to Eva's I can almost believe for a moment she's returned. That she's here and I'm the one who died.
Freaky fucking Friday.

I sink down on Eva's bed. Everything I believed—about Eva, about her life, about why she didn't want to be here, lay in pieces at my feet. If there was no husband, there will be no investigation of his death. And if there's no investigation, there has to be another reason why Eva was so willing to trade places and disappear.

I begin to laugh—the hysterical spiral of an exhausted woman teetering on the edge of sanity—and think of all the lies she told, straight-faced and sincere. And then I hear her voice in my head, and imagine her telling me to calm down and get the fuck out of her house, and I smirk at how sharp it is, how perfectly I can still recall it.

Neither of us could have guessed this was what would happen. We were only trading tickets. I wasn't supposed to drive to her house, unlock her door, and step into her life. Whatever I've walked into, I'm here because I chose to be.

* * *

Back in Eva's office, with the Doc open on the screen in front of me, I take a closer look at one of Eva's bank statements, scanning her monthly expenses. Food, gas, coffee shops. Automatic payments every month for everything, including cable and trash service, with a balance of two thousand dollars. There are two direct deposits from a place called DuPree's Steakhouse, each for nine hundred dollars. Not nearly enough income to warrant an all-cash purchase of her home.

And as I expected, no medical bills, no copays. No pharmacies. I feel a sliver of admiration at the outrageous fabrication rendered with the finesse of a con artist. The smooth way she set her boarding pass on the bar between us, a quiet temptation I was too preoccupied to notice at the time, the way she described how easy it was to blend in to Berkeley. The subtle way she reflected my own desires and fears back at me, allowing me to fall into step alongside her.

According to her car registration, she drives an old Honda, which is most likely hidden in the attached garage. A woman smart enough to orchestrate something like this isn't going to leave her car parked at an airport or train station, identifying that as her starting point. I don't want anything to do with it, though. If someone's looking for her, they'll surely begin with her car. But it's nice to know it's there, if I need it.

I make quick work of the rest of Eva's desk. More dried-out pens and paper clips in a tangle, empty envelopes, a few charging bricks with no cords. But none of the other things you'd expect to find. No saved birthday cards or appointment reminders. No photographs, notes, or sentimental keepsakes. Not only was her husband a fabrication, I'm beginning to wonder if Eva was too.

I look to the left of the desk, where an empty trash can sits, and my gaze catches on a small piece of paper, partially concealed behind the desk, as if someone meant to throw it away and missed. I pick it up and smooth it. It's a small card, the handwriting a neat cursive, the slanted, loopy kind you don't see beyond elementary school.
Everything you ever wanted is on the other side of fear.

I try to imagine the circumstances upon which Eva wrote this and then later discarded it. If perhaps she didn't need it anymore, or whether it stopped being something she believed to be true.

I carry it across the hall to Eva's bedroom, tuck the card into the edge of the mirror over her dresser, and begin to tidy the mess I'd made. As I refold her shirts, the smell of her—flowers with that chemical undernote—stirs in the air around me. I come across a Red Hot Chili Peppers T-shirt, and I hold it against my chest. Oversized and well worn, it's from their
Californication
tour. The Chili Peppers were one of Violet's favorite bands, and I had promised her that when she turned sixteen, I'd take her to a concert. One of the many things she never got to do. I drape the shirt over my shoulder and close the drawer. This, I want.

I finish tidying the dresser, confirming no hidden money or jewelry. No diary or love letters stashed away from prying eyes. Fictional husband aside, no one—except perhaps me, living in Rory's house—lives a life this empty.

Across the room, I sit on the edge of her bed and open the top drawer of her nightstand. Another tube of expensive hand lotion that smells like roses when I rub it into my arm. A bottle of Tylenol. But tucked along the inside edge of the drawer is a photo, the only one I've seen in the house so far. It's a novelty shot of Eva posing with an older woman outside a stadium in San Francisco. Enormous Giants Baseball banners hang behind life-sized cutouts of players, and the women pose, their heads tilted together, Eva laughing, her arm draped over the woman's shoulders. She looks light and happy, as if whatever shadows were chasing her hadn't shown up yet. I wonder if this was a friend, or someone else Eva had tricked. Whether everything Eva did had been calculated for her own benefit.

I imagine Eva, spinning her lies. Making this woman believe Eva was someone who needed help. I study the woman's face, wondering where she is now, whether she might come looking for Eva, and what she'd say to find me, with the exact same haircut and color as Eva's, living in Eva's house, wearing her clothes. Who's the con artist now?

At the back of the drawer, underneath a pair of scissors and some tape, I find an envelope. Inside it is a handwritten note dated thirteen years ago, clipped to some pages behind it. I remove the clip and flip through them, paperwork from a place in San Francisco called St. Joseph's. A convent? A church? The handwriting is spidery and faded, and I tilt it toward the window so I can read it better.

Dear Eva,

I hope this letter finds you well, studying hard and learning a lot! I'm writing to let you know that after over eighty years, the St. Joseph's group home is finally being absorbed into the county foster system. It's probably for the best, as we are all getting older here—even Sister Catherine.

I remember you used to frequently ask about your birth family, and while we were prohibited from answering your questions at the time, now that you're over eighteen, I want to give you all the information we have. I'm enclosing copies of our notes on your intake and the general records from your years here. If there are any specifics you want to know, you'll have to petition the county for your official records. I think the social worker who worked on your case was Craig Henderson.

You should know that I tracked down your mother's family after your last foster placement failed, hoping they might have had a change of heart. But they hadn't. Your mother struggled with addiction, and her family was overwhelmed with the burden of monitoring and caring for her. That was a large part of why they surrendered you in the first place.

But despite that beginning, you've grown into an incredible person. Please know that we talk of you still—and are so proud of your many accomplishments. Sister Catherine scours the newspapers for your name in association with a magnificent scientific discovery, although I have to remind her you're still in school and that's probably a few years off yet. We would welcome a visit or a call to learn what kind of wonderful life you've built for yourself at Berkeley. You are destined to do great things.

Much love in Christ,

Sister Bernadette

I set it aside, looking at the rest of the papers that were attached with the clip. They're photocopies of handwritten notes, dating back over thirty years ago. They describe the arrival and adjustment of a two-year-old girl at a Catholic group home.

Child, Eva, arrived at 7:00 p.m.; mother, Rachel Ann James, declined interview, signed documents for termination of parental rights. St. Joseph's submitted paperwork to county, awaiting response.

Another page, dated twenty-four years ago, was less clinical.

Eva returned to us last night. This was her third placement, and I fear her last. We will keep her as long as the Lord guides us to, and give her a spot here at St. Joe's. CH is the social worker assigned to her case this time, which means we won't be seeing much of him.

A student at Berkeley explains the science textbooks downstairs. Perhaps she never finished—either because she couldn't afford to, or her grades weren't good enough to graduate, leading her to become a server at a steakhouse. And a con artist, spinning lies in a New York airport.

It also explains why the house is so bare, empty of anything Eva might have accumulated from a family—photo albums, birthday cards, notes. I know what it's like to wake up alone every day, with no family to worry about your well-being. Your heart. Whether you're happy. At least I had that for the first twenty-one years of my life. It's possible Eva never did.

This is what it's like to die, having left so much unfinished. It still tethers you—like an unbreakable thread, always leading your thoughts back to
if only
. But
if only
is a useless question, a spotlight shining on an empty stage, illuminating what never was, and never will be.

I tuck the letter back into the envelope and return it to her drawer, trying to imagine this new version of Eva into existence. But she dances, like quicksilver—a flash and then gone. Never settling long enough to see her clearly, an ever-shifting shape just outside my peripheral vision.

* * *

I need a shower, stray pieces of hair making the back of my neck itch. The only clothes I own are the few items I grabbed from my suitcase in the bathroom stall at JFK. My jeans. One pair of underwear. No bra or socks other than the ones I'm wearing. I look between the bag and Eva's dresser, filled with clothes that don't belong to me. Not just jeans and shirts, but intimate things. And it hits me again. I have almost nothing. I hesitate before sliding open her underwear drawer again, my stomach clenching, steeling myself against the idea of wearing her clothes. I close my eyes, thinking of other people who have had to resort to much more horrific things to survive than wearing someone else's underwear.
It's just cotton and elastic
, I tell myself.
And it's clean.

I pull my own clothes from the bag, wondering if a person can live indefinitely with only two pairs of underwear, and hurry into the hall where I pull a towel from the linen cupboard. In the bathroom, I run the water hot, letting the room steam up and obscure my reflection in the mirror until I'm just a faint outline. A blurry facsimile of an anonymous woman. I could be anybody.

* * *

When I'm done, I dress and stand in front of the mirror in Eva's room, the unfamiliar rose scent of Eva's soap and lotion hanging in the air around me. A stranger looks back at me with her cropped blond hair and sharp cheekbones. I step over to the dresser, where Eva's wallet sits, and pull out her license, comparing my face to hers, a flutter of optimism growing inside of me.

I recognize this feeling, the excitement of being on the cusp of a new life. I felt it when I met Rory, when everything seemed to glitter with possibility, standing on the edge between who I was and who I wanted to become.

A cover story starts to form, an explanation I can give to anyone who asks.
Eva and I grew up together in the group home.
I can speak with authority about Sister Bernadette and Sister Catherine. And if they ask where Eva went and why I'm here, I'll tell them I'm getting a divorce, and Eva is letting me stay here while she travels
.

Where did she go?

I stare at my reflection in the mirror—not quite Eva, not quite Claire—and try out my answer. “New York.”

* * *

Back in Eva's office, I begin to tidy up, sorting Eva's papers into stacks, unsure of what to do next, when text pops up on my computer screen. First, a single sentence, typed by Rory.
The Detroit trip.
Then, on the right-hand side of the computer, Rory adds a comment.

Rory Cook:

What did you do with the FedEx package?

A reply comes almost immediately.

Bruce Corcoran:

Money in the drawer. The ID, passport, and the rest of it have been shredded.

Rory Cook:

The letter?

Bruce Corcoran:

Scanned, then shredded.

Rory Cook:

How the fuck did she get her hands on a fake passport and ID?

Three dots show Bruce responding, and I hold my breath.

Bruce Corcoran:

No idea. Homeland security has cracked down on forgers, but what Claire had looked real. I checked her cell activity in the few days leading up to the trip. There was a number she called that morning that we can't match to anyone she knew. We're still looking into it.

I wait for them to continue, but nothing new appears. Then the comments disappear, one by one, and the text in the Doc itself also vanishes. In the upper right-hand corner, Bruce's icon disappears, leaving only Rory's behind. I need to be careful. There's no way to differentiate my presence in the Doc from Rory's, and if I start clicking things, that activity will show up on his computer with his name attached. So I'm stuck, a silent observer, unable to follow up or have my questions answered. All I can do is watch this play out on the screen in front of me.

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