THE SUN WAS BRIGHT in the airport windows, shining through without any heat. At the counter you gave the name s you'd rehearsed: yours from a comic book few would recognize, and another, the name of a girl you remembered dying in high school. She was your wife, you explained, off parking the car. Security didn't yet scour IDs or paw through the insides of luggage, but workers were trained to identify men like you. You had to be sure your voice didn't falter, that there was no sweat, no quickening of pulse. Behind your sunglasses, your eyes had to remain clear and true. The woman at the counter smiled, handed over your tickets. She warned you that the storm you knew was coming was coming and assured you that your flight would take off before the roil of rain and fog. You nodded because you'd done the calculations already, checked them; you'd chosen this plan e for its bulk, its ability to fly through weather.
At the gate, you watched yourself from many angles. You had a tendency to slouch as if hiding or turning away, and you felt a rush of frustration as you straightened your spine, pulling you r shoulders back and up. The other passengers rose, and you grabbed your brief case and joined them, one ticket in your hand, the other forgotten somewhere in your pocket. The slow procession led down the stairs to the tarmac where the wind was stronger now, but the clouds were still far off, not yet visible. In your seat, you arranged the briefcase on the floor so its lines paralleled the edges of the aisle, its corners coming to a perfect point. You lit a cigarette, smoked, folded it into the armrest ash tray. Soon the plane lurched. Clouds flooded the window before thinning and stretching all the way to the horizon. The engine oozed its monotonous hum; heads of passengers scalloped toward the cockpit. You asked the stewardess for your first scorch, and rested a palm upon the empty seat beside you. You let our a long breath, drew in another through your teeth.
TWENTY-ONE MINUTES LATER, THE stewardess placed a second drink upon a napkin on your tray. Courteous, gregarious, you grinned at her, signaled her to sit, gave her a piece of paper that said URGENT. Stay quiet, it told her when she opened it, do not talk or scream or show concern. The stewardess saw you now; her face drain ed under her makeup and under her thick, black hair and red cap that was part of her uniform. The note told her that her life and the lives of others depended upon her next actions. You could feel the power of your words shivering up her arms as she read, flowing into the metal of the plane that hung so precariously on nothing but air. Cracking the briefcase, you watched her study what she could see. Then she folded the paper, composed herself, and hurried down the aisle to the cockpit door. As she disappeared, you considered the repetitive actions of waitresses and stewardesses, the dependence on nametag and uniform, the regulars who came in every day and every day ordered the same breakfast or lunch or dinner. The scotch spread across your tongue, its smoke and burn lingering , sinking in. Other men had tried this. All had failed. You wondered if they had similar thoughts as they sat where you were now, cradling bombs, real or fake, in brief cases on their laps.
The stewardess reappeared and drifted up the aisle; the pilot's voice filtered about the cabin.
We aren't in any danger, he announced. We're simply returning to the airport we just left.
The passengers met this with groans, but none seemed to notice the strain in his voice or the lightning sparking in the clouds outside. They were bothered by the fact that they'd gone up in the sky and would come down in the same place. A man in a row behind you let our a snore; a baby howled and sobbed. The stewardess buckled herself into the seat next to you, and you lit another cigarette, offered her one. The briefcase was on your lap. You explored its latches with one finger and then another and another.
FOR TWO YEARS you'd monitored everything, scrutinized the math, tried to predict possibility after possibility. You'd eaten dinner standing over maps and papers strewn across the kitchen table: notes on the barometer and wind, on flights and planes and rolling weather. You hardly noticed the house growing darker, dreary, cushions threadbare, rips larger in the upholstery. You scoured articles about the other men, learned from them, used their failures as rehearsals for yourself. You needed a demand, so you calculated one: 10,000 twenty-dollar bills secured in 100 bunches, each bunch approximately 3.54 ounces. The $200,000 would weigh 22.05 pounds, or about 25 when factoring in rubber bands and the sack to hold it. It was the limit of what you could carry when you jumped, found your bearings in the woods, and trudged eight to twelve miles as rain and mud and fog erased your path.
The plane's engine idled and droned. Droplets collected on the tiny windows. Back on the runway, minute crept after slow minute. Your thoughts surfaced and dove, discovered cracks in your plan where they were to be found, fabricated them where they weren't. The stewardess hadn't spoken; the passengers settled in, their faces weary, expressionless. Again you watched yourself from above, saw the slouch, the scotch, the cigarettes. You saw the haircut, every four weeks exactly, the new suit every six months exactly, the shave every morning against the grain, the two cups of coffee with two creams and two sugars, the hard-boiled egg. You saw your comfort in straight and parallel lines, your knowledge of engines and machines, the way you scanned the entire newspaper, headline to headline, before reading a single article, the way you played jazz records over and over until you could anticipate every note. Once, after you'd returned from the war, you'd taken a woman to the movies and left her there. Another time, you'd opened the Bible and read passages at random until none of them made sense. You still had family somewhere on the other side of the country, and for a while you'd kept track of their phone numbers.
THE PILOT RETURNED after fifty-six minutes, hauling four bags: one with the money and three stuffed with parachutes. If any of the passengers had recognized they were hostages, none voiced that concern, and you were grateful to nod and release them, to let them gather their things. As the last one shuffled from the plane, the pilot pulled his hands from his pockets and shoved them back in. He insisted he could not take off in this weather or fly as low as you demanded. You listened knowing differently.
It's just the three of us now, you said. If we don't leave, all of us will surely die. If you follow my instructions, most of us will probably live.
The pilot's knees buckled as he slumped coward the cockpit. You inhaled a long breath, held it. The stewardess's wrists lay heavy on the armrests, and outside, wind whipped across the runway, making no sound in the cabin. Far away, beyond the airport's fences, trees bent and swayed as if dancing or supplicating over the sick and defenseless.
In the air, the plane spiked and shifted like a dead leaf, its engines grinding against the storm, louder than you'd ever heard. Sometimes it rolled almost all the way to the side and you could feel the pilot crying to catch and correct it. You demanded another scotch, and watched the stewardess totter off. Clamping a cigarette between your lips, releasing your safety belt, you wedged yourself between the seats, trapping the briefcase and other bags with your hip to keep them from rumbling away. You cut the lines from one of the parachutes, used them to tie the sack of money to your chest. The floor dropped away. You pitched forward. There was a creak, a metallic lurch, and you lost your breath, couldn't find it again until the plane steadied. The stewardess returned, and you grabbed the tiny bottle from her. The alcohol burned your throat, gathered in your stomach, stayed there.
You strapped on one of the other parachutes and pointed up the aisle, following the stewardess as the two of you grappled from row to row as if climbing a giant ladder. With the bag of money tied to your front and the parachute to your back, you felt like you were sprouting wings from the wrong places on your body. The stewardess finally clamped onto a safety bar and refused to move again; you pushed past her, knelt at the passenger door, slipped the latch. The handle wrenched, the door sprang open. Cold water and air gusted in.
The pilot was flying along the base of the clouds just as you'd requested. From here, the woods resembled blades of grass under lightning. Mountains stood like tall shadows in the distance. Shivering, choking on the cold rush of rain, you lowered the stairs by hand until they hung, flailing as the plane flailed. Somehow you hadn't lose your sunglasses, and you laughed at that. Behind you, the stewardess had abandoned everything but fear, her eyes white and wide.
Do I kiss you now? you shouted to her.
She didn't answer. The plane tilted and righted itself, tilted and righted itself. It dipped and rose at random. You kept a hand on the wet railing, tiptoed out from seep to step. Below, the ground was a patchwork quilt, soft and beckoning to whatever might fall from the sky. You tossed the briefcase over the edge. It disappeared, and you followed.
YEARS LATER, YOU WOKE with the sun through the curtains, your head screwed into an uncomfortable space between pillows. You were in town to sell insurance, staying in a small hotel where the doors opened to a parking lot outside. This new job required travel, but you rarely had to fly, and every morning you watched your reflect ion in a different mirror, lathering, shaving against the grain as your father had taught you. You showered with the soap and shampoo you carried in a plastic bag; you dressed in clothes a decade out of style: the same suit, shirt, and tie you'd worn on that day. The same sunglasses, the same frames. On the sidewalk, men rushed past, already sweating. You hadn't turned on the television in your room, so you didn't see the news until you grabbed a paper from the front desk and scanned the first headline.
Okay, you said, folding it and fanning your face. Okay.
You smiled and then you didn't.
The bell above the diner's door announced your presence, and inside the waitress ate standing, reading the newspaper she'd spread over the counter. A blank television hovered from bolts in the corner. Portraits hung on walls at haphazard angles, their frames so old they appeared to be disintegrating at the edges. The only one you recognized was a painting above the radio, Elvis with a microphone. Beside the cash register was a red rose in a vase smudged with fingerprints.
The waitress didn't glance up, so you took a table near the window, opened the paper and began reading from headline to headline. You found the FBI sketch seven pages in, small and in the lower right hand corner. At least they were still publishing it, you thought, the face close to resembling yours, the hair short, exactly as you wore it now. But you'd been thinner then, and in the last ten years you'd struggled to keep yourself at that weight.
The waitress approached, and you adjusted your sunglasses. You removed them and tapped the newspaper next to the drawing. You put the sunglasses back on.
Coffee, you told her. Cream, sugar.
You lit a cigarette while she centered your cup on its saucer. There's been another hijacking, you said.
The waitress nodded. They've been talking about it, she said.
For the first time you were aware of the radio, turned so low you could barely hear it.
Copycats, you said.
Yes, she agreed. That's what they call them.
You touched the sketch with a finger. Don't forget the one who succeeded, you said, the one who got away.
The waitress frowned. Your cream and sugar, she mumbled as though she'd forgotten to bring them. Both were already there, on the table.
The bell above the door chimed. A family bustled in and toward a booth in back. The waitress went to them, and you were alone again in front of the window, in front of the town. You read the rest of the headlines as fast as you could before flipping to the front. According to the article, the hijacker hadn't made a single demand. Instead, he'd taken the cockpit and attempted to fly. You felt the word copycat as you always did, a solid thing. You shook your head. These men commandeered planes to Cuba or slammed them into targets on the ground. They were a tribute to your success, and you couldn't help grinning as you poured two creams into your cup, scooped two spoonfuls of sugar.
The waitress wrote down the family's order before refilling your coffee and taking yours. Through the window you saw a man stumbling forward. Then the bell rang and he was inside, retching, out of breath. The waitress calmed him. You stared at them as they talked, and you began to stir your coffee louder and louder. They didn't look back. Nobody ever looked back. Ten years ago, you'd clutched those floating stairs in the pounding rain; you'd buried $200,000 in the woods and hadn't spent any of it. You'd done the impossible because you could, and then you disappeared.
In the booth, one of the children upended her plate. The waitress took her time cleaning it before retrieving your food from behind the counter.
Two boiled eggs, she said, placing it on your table, three strips of bacon, hash browns. A popular order this morning.
I used to fly too, you said. I used to fix planes in the war. But she had already turned away.
Don't you want to know how I did it? you asked. Don't you want to know if the bomb was real?
The man at the counter was scaring. You gave him a small salute, and he glanced away. You focused on your napkin, arranging it on your lap until its straight lines paralleled the edges of the table, the corners coming to a perfect point.
THE BLACK SEDAN EDGED CLOSER, another dark silhouette behind another timed windshield. You placed a hand on your wife's, sheltering her thin fingers with your palm, her veins and skin. You shifted, slammed the accelerator, rook a corner at random. The wheels screeched; your wife yelped, deep in her throat. Your five year old started co cry. Glancing between the windshield and the rear view mirror, you calculated a path ahead while watching the car in pursuit. It was toying with you, you decided, like a lion crouching in the grass as its prey exhausted itself with fear.
Finally, you pulled over.Three minutes and the sedan didn't emerge; five, and there was still no sign of it. You let out a long breath, leaned back, rubbed your eyes. You lit a cigarette and put your hand on your wife's knee. She was beautiful on this sad day for her aunt, the sun framing her and her black dress. Your daughters wore dark dresses too, beautiful themselves, the oldest still whimpering, the youngest sleeping, snot inching from her nose. The FBI had never come to your door, never handcuffed or questioned you, but you were sure they still had agents on the case, and they always showed up at times like these. You could never tell if your wife actually believed any of this or if she saw it as another game. Not long after the jump, you'd taken her to the movies for the first time and touched her in the dark. You left her there and didn't come back and she called and called. After you married her, you told her everything, and she'd simply asked why. Why? To force my life forward, you said, to give it a jolt. She gave you the grin you loved, that wild glint in her eye. She wrapped you in her arms and held you there. Now she cradled your hand in the same way, between two palms, on her lap.
You started the car, drove for another hour before parking next to a diner with air conditioning. A bell chimed above the door. The stools and bench seats were patched with tape, the white tiles that alternated with black were scuffed. The photos on the wall were glossy and benign, as if salvaged from an old photographer's studio. The TV was off, and near the cash register a flower slumped from its vase. Above the radio hung a cheap painting of Elvis posing in his white jumpsuit.
You led your family to a booth in back. With hours of driving to go, your shoulders and knees were already stiff. You looked forward to your brother-in-law's scotch and retreating quietly to a corner as everyone told stories about a woman you and the children had never met. Removing your sunglasses, you eyed the only other customer, a man in a dark suit the same color as yours at a table near the front.
Your wife ordered scrambled eggs and oatmeal, pancakes for the kids. You asked for an egg hardboiled, bacon and hash browns, coffee with two creams and two sugars.
The waitress scribbled on her pad.
Shout if you want a paper, she said, or if you want me to turn on the television or turn up the radio. Her voice was worn and fit the place. Another plane went down, she said. I don't know if you've heard.
You exchanged a glance with your wife.
Did they say anything about the hijacker? you asked. Did they say who he was? If he got away?
The waitress's eyes clouded. No, she said.
We're going to a funeral, your wife told her. We don't want to scare the kids.
Of course, the waitress replied.
Your wife leaned into you, her shoulder brushing yours. Under the table, her hand crept between your legs and you nudged it away. Your eldest daughter drew pictures on the place mat; the youngest made noises that sounded like words. There were hints of your face on both of theirs, the eldest showing your gift of concentration. You lit a cigarette, picturing the bag of money buried in the woods, the worms turning it to soil. A new copycat had emerged this morning and failed. You had done it when nobody else had. You had disappeared. Now you were almost back.
The waitress brought your food and you stabbed out your cigarette in the ashtray. A man rushed in wearing a suit that wasn't anything like yours, and when he calmed, he began co discuss the hijacking with the waitress. You tried to listen, but couldn't hear much over the prattling of the children and the sound of the man near the window stirring his coffee. The waitress said something about being on one of the planes, about being a stewardess, and suddenly the whole place went quiet, the silence stretching out, expanding. The TV was blank; it was as if some invisible hand had turned off the radio. To break the silence, you flipped your youngest daughter's plate, knocking over your wife's orange juice and a glass of water. Everyone stared and you returned their stares. The waitress hurried over.
It's okay, honey, she said, guiding the liquid back to the center of the table, the wet rag refusing to sop it up. She spoke to the child in a baby voice: Like it never happened, she cooed.
The baby smiled, toothless and happy. You caught the man by the window saluting the man by the counter. They both seemed to nod in agreement before glancing away. When one of them said something about a bomb, the bacon turned to rubber in your mouth. They'd finally caught up to you, you thought. You glanced about frantically for a way to disappear, but there was no way to hold on to everything you'd found and everything that had found you.
IN THE CAR, in the summer heat, you heard about an explosion, another hijacking, all the passengers dead. The road blurred; oxygen didn't quite fill your lungs. As usual, the radio suggested there'd been a copycat, and as usual you felt as though something heavy had settled on your chest. Swerving into an open space, you rolled down the window, tried to force a breath past the shallows of your body. Waves of heat writhed across the sidewalk and when a small restaurant advertising air conditioning materialized through the windshield, you left the car and staggered forward.
The place had worn booths and stools, a worn checkered floor and a marble counter, its edges round and smooth. Photographs and paintings were scattered about the walls; a rose sat in a vase near the register. It was empty except for a family in the far corner and a man at a cable near the window. You felt better in the air conditioning, cooler, so you slid onto a stool and asked for coffee and a menu. The same voices murmured from the radio here, but the volume was low and the television was off and all of it was drowned by the laughing and talking of the children. The waitress set the coffee down beside an open newspaper on the counter. She centered the cup on the saucer with her fingertips. When she asked if you wanted sugar or cream, you shook your head.
Black, the waitress replied. The hard stuff. I guess it's too early for scotch.
I've never tried it, you told her, not even once.
The waitress smiled. She had a square jaw and eyes that were kind and clear, stolid and brown. I've had more than a drop for everyone who's ever come through this place, she said.
She splashed more coffee into your cup and circled the restaurant. As you waited, you couldn't help straining toward the voices on the radio, and you noticed the sketch in the newspaper, the drawing of your face. In it, you had sunglasses on, so you refused to wear them now; you were thin, so you'd gained weight; you were clean shaven with short hair, so you'd let your hair grow. In the report, you drank and smoked, so you'd quit. Still, when you heard about another copycat, when you saw the drawing, the tightening returned as if someone had his hands around your lungs and had started to squeeze.
The man near the window stirred his coffee, clinking his spoon around the inside of his cup. The waitress scratched your order onto her pad, repeated it, asked if you wanted the radio turned up.
I've heard it before, you said. I don't want to hear it again.
Suddenly, she was close to tears. I was a stewardess once, she whispered, on one of those planes.
A silence followed, punctuated by murmurs from the radio and the man by the window stirring and stirring his coffee. The air conditioner hummed; a newspaper rustled even though there wasn't any breeze. Your cup shook against it saucer, your eyes stuck on the crude and colorful painting of Elvis. You felt an affinity with the waitress, as if she saw those years you'd spent in the dark, weighing the physics, scouring the maps, predicting the strain of weather on engines and wings. It was as if she saw the money, too, buried in the center of a ring of aspens. Back then you'd told yourself that if you did it, if you disappeared, nobody would have to do it again. You sat up straight at the counter, watching yourself from a distance. You wondered if the waitress also saw your arrogance, if she knew how many copycats you'd caused. You hadn't done it to save anyone, you thought. You'd done it because you could, and now you'd lost yourself. Now you'd disappeared.
We can't stop them, you told her. We can't stop them and it's horrible.
A crash of plates and glasses made you jump. Food was all over the table in the booth, and the mother was flushed with embarrassment. The father sat frozen, his fork hanging in his hand.
The waitress wiped her eyes. It's okay, honey, she sniffed, although it wasn't clear who she was talking to.
It happens all the time, she said.
As she cleaned the mess, the cook hollered from the kitchen. The waitress lit a cigarette and let it dangle from her lips. Skating around the counter, she tossed the wet rag in the sink.
The man by the window stirred more frantically. The waitress placed his breakfast on the table in front of him. He said something to her and caught you peeking. He gave you a tiny salute. When you found your breath and the courage to glance back, he was shaking out his napkin, situating it carefully on his lap.
THE MORNING SUN couldn't pierce the cool of the air conditioning. You slouched over the counter with a cigarette as usual, ate your hardboiled egg with bacon and hash browns, read the paper, headline to headline. With the radio on, you sipped coffee, two creams, two sugars. A decade had passed and you'd undergone three operations before starting at the restaurant. Now you barely noticed the photographs on the walls, the painting of Elvis, the fake red rose someone had left on a table for you once. With its counter and row of stools, its breakfast and lunch menus, its familiar patterns and tables, this could be any diner. Even in the army, even before, you'd always had a talent for disappearing, and you'd put that talent to the test. Now, only when you woke to news about another copycat did you remember where you were. Only then did you fear that others might see it.
A man in a suit and sunglasses entered and sat near the window. You finished the headlines, and when you glanced up, you saw he was reading the paper as well. You recognized something in him, even if he had never come into the restaurant before.
He took off his sunglasses, and you saw the sketch of yourself under his hand.
You pretended not to notice. You let out a breath you didn't know you'd been holding.
There was one who succeeded, the man said. We shouldn't forget that.
Tears formed in your eyes and you blinked them away. The air conditioning felt cold and you shivered. You mumbled something about cream and sugar, the words sticking in your throat.
A family arrived and sat in back. The husband and wife leaned into each other, and you saw they were wearing black; you saw her hand creep between his legs.The husband's neck was red, shaved against the grain, and he ordered the same breakfast you'd just eaten. Moments later the man by the window ordered it too. The bell above the door rang, and a third man burst in, doubled over, breathing in gasps. He was upset about the new hijacking; he described it as horrible, and the word hung, awful and true. You told him you'd been on one of those hijacked planes, a stewardess way back when.
A silence followed. Out of the corner of your eye, you caught the husband tipping over his youngest daughter's plate, splashing coffee and juice. You let out a long breath, grabbed a rag. The little girl watched, her gaze soft, seeing everything, understanding none of it. You gave the man at the count er a compliment, delivered breakfast to the man by the window, avoided eye contact. The story on the radio repeated itself. You lit a cigarette and settled into routine. You thought about the scotch you'd pour after a long walk home.
You had changed yourself, you thought, you had disappeared. But you had to put the lives of others in danger to do so, and now more people were dying. These copycats were killers, which made you one too. On mornings like these, you had to remind yourself that the men coming into the diner were not like you, were not you. None of them had done what you had done. The air conditioner sputtered and hummed against the morning heat. Whatever the cook was doing sounded like metal on metal, and it made you nervous. You felt as though you were about to crystallize and shatter across the tile. Out the window, almost nothing moved, almost nobody walked by. The newspaper on the counter was still open to the sketch, and you closed it when you thought nobody was looking. Your hands shook as you shoved it into the trash.
YEARS BEFORE, you'd tossed the briefcase over the edge into the mist and cold and rain, and you followed. The bomb wasn't real, didn't have to be, and wind rushed past, your arms and legs fluttering as if they'd lost support of their bones. Your stomach disappeared, the last of the scotch inside it, and you were freezing, the dark line of trees rising up. Above, the lights of the airplane hazed through the fog, separating, merging back together. You imagined the stewardess peering over the edge, her face growing smaller and smaller.
You had jumped before, twice, both times in the army, but this time the cord didn't work. You yanked it with more force, the parachute finally snapping through the air. Again you watched yourself from a distance as you tried to swim against it. You watched your body collide with the wet ground, your muscles loosening, your joints bending into themselves, your skin somehow holding it all. Moments of clarity crept through waves of panic. You were the property of physics now. Your favorite jazz song played. Lines from the Bible presented themselves before cluttering, growing incomprehensible. Then the parachute caught and your fall became a jump again. You floated, breaking through branches, the trees picking at you, scratching your face. The parachute snagged and released. On the ground, rain pattered against mud; leaves rustled. You vomited, your head heavy on the pillow of your arm. A string of saliva ran down your cheek; mud clung to the entire length of your body.
You stood up, helpless. The wet air stretched for miles in every direction. The plane was gone, invisible, somewhere beyond the mountains. You tugged the parachute down from the trees and gathered it, heavy with mud and rain. The sack of money still tied to your chest, you stumbled for hours through the woods, exhausted, using the movement of the clouds to help you circle toward the spot where you'd hidden the shovel under piles of moss. Without much footing, you dug a hole, the mud slipping down and replacing itself. When the money was finally buried, the shovel concealed with it, you paused to catch your breath. Two miles later, you emerged from the trees in a town you knew only from the map. You bought a sandwich and soda from the drugstore and paid for a hotel room where you removed your wet, mud-covered clothes. The bleeding you'd felt inside your sock had stopped, and you saw in the mirror that the scrapes from the trees on your face and arms weren't as noticeable as they felt. You showered and changed, balling everything up, cold and dripping, to throw in the dumpster outside. You had to leave, but you stripped the blanket off the bed and wrapped yourself in it. You sat on the white sheets, trying to quell the sickness, your hands shielding your face. You could not see yourself anymore. You'd done it, you thought; you'd disappeared.