SHE HEARD A KNOCKING, AND THEN A DOG BARKING. Her dream left her, skittering behind a closing door. It had been a good dream, warm and close, and she minded. She fought the waking. It was dark in the small bedroom, with no light yet behind the shades. She reached for the lamp, fumbled her way up the brass, and she was thinking, What? What?
The lit room alarmed her, the wrongness of it, like an emergency room at midnight. She thought, in quick succession: Mattie. Then, Jack. Then, Neighbor. Then, Car accident. But Mattie was in bed, wasn’t she? Kathryn had seen her to bed, had watched her walk down the hall and through a door, the door shutting with a firmness that was just short of a slam, enough to make a statement but not provoke a reprimand. And Jack—where was Jack? She scratched the sides of her head, raking out her sleep-flattened hair. Jack was—where? She tried to remember the schedule: London. Due home around lunchtime. She was certain. Or did she have it wrong and had he forgotten his keys again?
She sat up and put her feet on the freezing floorboards. She had never understood why the wood of an old house lost its warmth so completely in the winter. Her black leggings had ridden up to the middle of her calves, and the cuffs of the shirt she had slept in, a worn white shirt of Jack’s, had unrolled and were hanging past the tips of her fingers. She couldn’t hear the knocking anymore, and she thought for a few seconds that she had imagined it. Had dreamed it, in the way she sometimes had dreams from which she woke into other dreams. She reached for the small clock on her bedside table and looked at it: 3:24. She peered more closely at the black face with the glow-in-the-dark dial and then set the clock down on the marble top of the table so hard that the case popped open and a battery rolled under the bed.
But Jack was in London, she told herself again. And Mattie was in bed.
There was another knock then, three sharp raps on glass. A small stoppage in her chest traveled down into her stomach and lay there. In the distance, the dog started up again with short, brittle yips.
She took careful steps across the floor, as if moving too fast might set something in motion that hadn’t yet begun. She opened the latch of the bedroom door with a soft click and made her way down the back staircase. She was thinking that her daughter was upstairs and that she should be careful.
She walked through the kitchen and tried to see, through the window over the sink, into the driveway that wound around to the back of the house. She could just make out the shape of an ordinary dark car. She turned the corner into the narrow back hallway, where the tiles were worse than the floorboards, ice on the soles of her feet. She flipped on the back-door light and saw, beyond the small panes set into the top of the door, a man.
He tried not to look surprised by the sudden light. He moved his head slowly to the side, not staring into the glass, as if it were not a polite thing to do, as if he had all the time in the world, as if it were not 3:24 in the morning. He looked pale in the glare of the light. He had hooded eyelids and a widow’s peak, hair the color of dust that had been cut short and brushed back at the sides. His topcoat collar was turned up, and his shoulders were hunched. He moved once quickly on the doorstep, stamping his feet. She made a judgment then. The long face, slightly sad; decent clothes; an interesting mouth, the bottom lip slightly curved and fuller than the upper lip: not dangerous. As she reached for the knob, she thought, Not a burglar, not a rapist. Definitely not a rapist. She opened the door.
“Mrs. Lyons?” he asked.
And then she knew.
It was in the way he said her name, the fact that he knew her name at all. It was in his eyes, a wary flicker. The quick breath he took.
She snapped away from him and bent over at the waist. She put a hand to her chest.
He reached his hand through the doorway and touched her at the small of her back.
The touch made her flinch. She tried to straighten up but couldn’t.
“When?” she asked.
He took a step into her house and closed the door.
“Earlier this morning,” he said.
“About ten miles off the coast of Ireland.”
“In the water?”
“No. In the air.”
“Oh….” She brought a hand to her mouth.
“It almost certainly was an explosion,” he said quickly.
“You’re sure it was Jack?”
He glanced away and then back again.
He caught her elbows as she went down. She was momentarily embarrassed, but she couldn’t help it, her legs were gone. She hadn’t known that her body could abandon her so, could just give out like that. He held her elbows, but she wanted her arms back. Gently, he lowered her to the floor.
She bent her face to her knees and wrapped her arms over her head. Inside her there was a white noise, and she couldn’t hear what he was saying. Consciously, she tried to breathe, to fill up her lungs. She raised her head up and took in great gulps of air. As if in the distance, she heard an odd choking sound that wasn’t exactly crying because her face was dry. From behind her, the man was trying to lift her up.
“Let me get you to a chair,” he said.
She swung her head from side to side. She wanted him to let her go. She wanted to sink into the tiles, to ooze onto the floor.
Awkwardly, he placed his arms under hers. She let him help her up.
“I’m going to be—,” she said.
Quickly, she pushed him away with the palms of her hands and leaned against the wall for support. She coughed and gagged, but there was nothing in her stomach.
When she looked up, she could see that he was apprehensive. He took her by the arm and made her round the corner into the kitchen.
“Sit here in this chair,” he said. “Where’s the light?”
“On the wall.”
Her voice was raspy and faint. She realized she was shivering.
He swiped for the switch and found it. She put a hand up in front of her face to ward off the light. Instinctively, she did not want to be seen.
“Where do you keep the glasses?” he asked.
She pointed to a cabinet. He poured her a glass of water and handed it to her, but she couldn’t hold it steady. He braced her fingers while she took a sip.
“You’re in shock,” he said. “Where can I get you a blanket?”
“You’re with the airline,” she said.
He took off his topcoat and his jacket and put the jacket around her shoulders. He made her slide her arms into the sleeves, which were surprisingly silky and warm.
“No,” he said. “The union.”
She nodded slowly, trying to make sense of this.
“Robert Hart,” he said, introducing himself.
She nodded again, took another sip of water. Her throat felt dry and sore.
“I’m here to help,” he said. “This is going to be difficult to get through. Is your daughter here?”
“You know I have a daughter?” she asked quickly.
And then she thought, Of course you do.
“Would you like me to tell her?” he asked.
Kathryn shook her head.
“They always said the union would get here first,” she said. “The wives, I mean. Do I have to wake her now?”
He glanced quickly at his watch, then at Kathryn, as if considering how much time was left to them.
“In a few minutes,” he said. “When you’re ready. Take your time.”
The telephone rang, a serrated edge in the silence of the kitchen. Robert Hart answered it immediately.
“No comment,” he said.
She watched him lay the receiver back on its cradle and massage his forehead with his fingers. He had thick fingers and large hands, hands that seemed too big for his body.
She looked at the man’s shirt, a white oxford with a gray stripe, but all she could see was a fake plane in a fake sky blowing itself to bits in the distance.
She wanted the man from the union to turn around and tell her that he had made a mistake: He’d gotten the plane wrong; she was the wrong wife; it hadn’t happened the way he said it had. She could almost feel the joy of that.
“Is there someone you want me to call?” he asked. “To be with you.”
“No,” she said. “Yes.” She paused. “No.”
She shook her head. She wasn’t ready yet. She lowered her eyes and fixed them on the cabinet under the sink. What was in it? Cascade. Drano. Pine Sol. Jack’s black shoe polish. She bit the inside of her cheek and looked around at the kitchen, at the cracked pine table, the stained hearth behind it, the milk-green Hoosier cabinet. Her husband had shined his shoes in this room not two days ago, his foot braced on a bread drawer he had pulled out for the task. It was often the last thing he did before he left for work. She would sit and watch him from the chair, and lately it had become a kind of ritual, a part of his leaving her.
It had always been hard for her, his leaving the house—no matter how much work she had to do, no matter how much she looked forward to having time to herself. And it wasn’t that she had been afraid. She hadn’t been in the habit of being fearful. Safer than driving a car, he’d always said, and he’d had an offhand confidence, as though his safety were not even worthy of a conversation. No, it wasn’t exactly safety. It was the act of leaving itself, of Jack’s removing himself from the house, that had always been difficult. She often felt, watching him walk out of the door with his thick, boxy flight bag in one hand and his overnight bag in the other, his uniform cap tucked under his arm, that he was, in some profound way, separating from her. And, of course, he was. He was leaving her in order to take a 170-ton airplane into the air and across the ocean to London or to Amsterdam or to Nairobi. It wasn’t a particularly hard feeling to sort out, and within moments it would pass. Sometimes Kathryn would become so accustomed to his absence that she bristled at the change in her routines when he returned. And then, three or four days later, the cycle would begin again.
She didn’t think Jack had ever felt the coming and going in quite the same way she had. To leave, after all, was not the same as being left.
I’m just a glorified bus driver, he used to say.
And not all that glorified, he would add.
Used to say. She tried to take it in. She tried to understand that Jack no longer existed. But all she could see were cartoon puffs of smoke, lines drawn outward in all directions. She let the image go as quickly as it had come.
“Mrs. Lyons? Is there a television in another room that I could keep half an eye on?” Robert Hart asked.
“In the front room,” she said, pointing.
“I just need to hear what they’re reporting now.”
“It’s fine,” she said. “I’m fine.”
He nodded, but he seemed reluctant. She watched him leave the room. She shut her eyes and thought: I absolutely cannot tell Mattie.
Already, she could imagine how it would be. She would open the door to Mattie’s room, and on the wall there would be posters of Less Than Jake and extreme skiing in Colorado. On the floor would be two or three days’ worth of inside-out clothes. Mattie’s sportsequipment would be propped up in a corner—her skis and poles, her snowboard, her field hockey and lacrosse sticks. Her bulletin board would be covered with cartoons and pictures of her friends: Taylor, Alyssa, and Kara, fifteen-year-old girls with ponytails and long hair wisps in the front. Mattie would be huddled under her blue-and-white comforter and would pretend not to hear her until Kathryn said her name for the third time. Then Mattie would bolt upright, at first irritated to be woken, thinking it was time for school and wondering why Kathryn had moved into the room. Mattie’s hair, a sandy red with metallic threads, would be spread along the shoulders of a purple T-shirt that said “Ely Lacrosse” in white letters across her tiny breasts. She would put her hands behind her on the mattress and hold herself up.
“What is it, Mom?” she would say.
“What is it, Mom?”
And then again, her voice instantly more high pitched.
“Mom, what is it?”
And Kathryn would have to kneel beside the bed and would have to tell her daughter what had happened.
“No, Mom!” Mattie would cry.
* * *
When Kathryn opened her eyes, she could hear the low murmur of the television.
She got up from the kitchen chair and walked into the long front room with its six pairs of floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the lawn and the water. There was a Christmas tree inthe corner that stopped her at the threshold. Robert Hart washunched forward on the sofa, and an old man was being interviewed on the TV. She had missed the beginning of the report. It was CNN or maybe CBS. Robert looked quickly over at her.
“Are you sure you want to watch this?” he asked.
“Please,” she said. “I’d rather see.”
She entered the room and moved closer to the television.
It was raining where the old man was, and later they printed the name of the place along the bottom of the screen. Malin Head, Ireland. She couldn’t picture where it might be on a map. She didn’t even know which Ireland it was in. Rain dripped from the old man’s cheeks, and he had long white pouches under his eyes. The camera moved away and showed a village green with pristine white facades of buildings fronting it. In the center of the row of buildings was a sad-looking hotel, and she read the name along a thin marquee: Malin Hotel. There were men standing around its doorway with mugs of tea or coffee in their hands, looking over in a shy way at all the news crews. The camera slid back to the old man and moved in close to his face. He looked shocky around the eyes, and his mouth was hanging open, as though it was hard for him to breathe. Kathryn watched him on the television, and she thought: That is what I look like now. Gray in the face. The eyes staring out at something that isn’t even there. The mouth loose like that of a hooked fish.
The interviewer, a dark-haired woman with a black umbrella, asked the old man to describe what he had seen.
It were moonlight with dark water, he said haltingly.
His voice was hoarse, his accent so thick they had to print what he was saying at the bottom of the screen.
There were bits of silver falling from the sky and landing all around the boat, he said.
The bits fluttered like
Birds that were wounded.
Spiraling, like, and spinning.
She walked to the TV and knelt on the carpet so that her face was even with the old man’s on the screen. The fisherman was waving his hands around to show what he meant. He made a cone shape and moved his fingers up and down and then drew a ragged edge. He told the interviewer that none of the strange bits had actually landed in his boat and that by the time he had motored to the places where it seemed the things had fallen, they had disappeared or sunk into the sea and he could not get at them, not even with his nets.
Facing the camera, the reporter said that the man’s name was Eamon Gilley. He was eighty-three, she said, and he was the first eyewitness to come forward. No one else appeared to have seen what the fisherman had seen, and nothing had been confirmed yet. Kathryn had the feeling that the reporter wanted very much for Gilley’s story to be true but felt obliged to say that it might not be.
But Kathryn knew that it was true. She could see the moonlight on the sea, the way it must have twitched and sparkled, the silvery glints falling from the sky, falling, falling, like tiny angels coming down to earth. She could see the small boat in the water and the fisherman standing at its bow—his face turned upward toward the moon, his hands outstretched. She could see him risk his balance to catch the fluttering bits, poking the air like a small child grabbing for fireflies on a summer night. And she thought then how strange it was that disaster—the sort of disaster that drained the blood from your body and took the air out of your lungs and hit you again and again in the face—could be, at times, such a thing of beauty.
* * *
Robert reached over and turned off the television.
“Are you all right?” he asked.
“When did you say it happened?”
He rested his elbows on his knees and folded his hands.
“One fifty-seven. Our time. Six fifty-seven theirs.”
Above his right eyebrow, there was a scar. He must be in his late thirties, she thought, closer to her age than to Jack’s. He had the fair skin of a blond and brown eyes with flecks of rust in the irises. Jack had had blue eyes, two different blues—one a washed-out blue, almost translucent, a watercolor sky; the other brilliant, a sharp royal. The unusual coloring drew others’ eyes to his, made people examine his faceas though this asymmetrical characteristic suggested imbalance, perhaps something wrong.
She thought: Is this the man’s job?
“That was the time of the last transmission,” the man from the union said in a voice she could hardly hear.
“What was the last transmission?” she asked.
“It was routine.”
She didn’t believe him. What was routine about a last transmission?
“Do you know,” she asked, “what the most common last words are from a pilot when he knows he’s going down? Well, of course you know.”
“Mrs. Lyons,” he said, turning to her.
“You’re still in shock. You should have some sugar. Is there juice?”
“In the fridge. It was a bomb, wasn’t it?”
“I wish I had more to tell you.”
He stood up and walked into the kitchen. She realized that she didn’t want to be left alone in a room just yet, and so she followed him. She looked at the clock over the sink. 3:38. Was it possible that only fourteen minutes had elapsed since she had peered at the clock on the night table upstairs?
“You got here fast,” she said, sitting again on the kitchen chair.
He poured orange juice into a glass.
“How did you do it?” she asked.
“We have a plane,” he said quietly.
“No. I mean, tell me. How is it done? You have a plane waiting? You sit around waiting for a crash?”
He handed her the glass of juice. He leaned against the sink and ran the middle finger of his right hand vertically along his brow, from the bridge of his nose to his hairline. He seemed to be making decisions then, judgments.
“No, I don’t,” he said. “I don’t sit around waiting for a crash. But if one occurs, we have procedures in place. We have a Lear jet at Washington National. It flies me to the nearest major airport. In this case, Portsmouth.”
“And then there’s a car waiting.”
“And you did it in…”
She calculated the time it would take him to travel from Washington, which was where the union headquarters was, to Ely, New Hampshire, just over the Massachusetts border.
“A little over an hour,” he said.
“But why?” she asked.
“To get here first,” he said. “To inform you. To help you through it.”
“That’s not why,” she said quickly.
He thought a minute.
“It’s part of it,” he said.
She smoothed her hand over the cracked surface of the pine table. On nights when Jack had been home, Jack and she and Mattie had seemed to live within a ten-foot radius of that table—reading the paper, listening to the news, cooking, eating, cleaning up, doing homework, and then, after Mattie had gone to bed, talking or not talking, and sometimes, if Jack didn’t have a trip, sharing a bottle of wine. In the beginning, when Mattie was little and early to bed, they had sometimes had candlelight and made love in the kitchen, one or the other of them seized by a sudden lust or fondness.
She tilted her head back and shut her eyes. The pain seemed to stretch from her abdomen to her throat. She felt panicky, as though she had strayed too close to the edge. She drew in her breath so sharply that Robert looked over at her.
And then she moved from shock to grief the way she might enter another room.
The images assaulted her. The feeling of Jack’s breath at the top of her spine, as though he were whispering to her bones. The sliding sensation against her mouth when he gave her a quick kiss as he went off to work. The drape of his arm around Mattie after her last field hockey game, when Mattie was sticky and sweaty and crying because her team had lost eight-zip. The pale skin on the inside of Jack’s arms. The slightly pitted skin between his shoulder blades, a legacy of adolescence. The odd tenderness of his feet, the way he couldn’t walk along a beach without sneakers. The warmth of him always, even on the coldest of nights, as though his inner furnace burned extravagantly. The images pushed and jostled and competed rudely with each other for space. She tried to stop them, but she couldn’t.
The man from the union stood at the sink and watched her. He didn’t move.
“I loved him,” she said when she could speak.
She got up and ripped a sheet of paper towel from its holder. She blew her nose. She felt a momentary bewilderment of tenses. She wondered if time were opening up an envelope and would swallow her—for a day or a week or a month or possibly forever.
“I know,” said Robert.
“Are you married?” she asked, sitting down again.
He put his hands in the pockets of his trousers and jiggled the change there. He had on gray suit trousers. Jack hardly ever wore a suit. Like many men who wore a uniform to work, he had never been a particularly good dresser.
“No,” he said. “I’m divorced.”
“Do you have children?”
“Two boys. Nine and six.”
“Do they live with you?”
“With my wife in Alexandria. Ex-wife.”
“Do you see them much?”
“Why did you get divorced?”
“I stopped drinking,” he said.
He said this matter-of-factly, without explanation. She wasn’t sure she understood. She blew her nose again.
“I have to call the school,” she said. “I’m a teacher.”
“That can wait,” he said. “No one will be there anyway. No one is awake yet.” He looked at his watch.
“Tell me about your job,” she said.
“There isn’t a lot to tell. It’s mostly public relations.”
“How many of these things have you had to do?” she asked.
“Crashes,” she said. “Crashes.”
He was silent for a minute.
“Five,” he said finally. “Five major ones.”
“And four smaller ones.”
“Tell me about them,” she said.
He glanced out the window. Thirty seconds passed. Maybe a minute. Again she sensed that he was making judgments, decisions.
“Once I got to the widow’s house,” he said, “and I found her in bed with another man.”
“Where was this?”
“The wife came down in a robe, and I told her, and then the man got dressed and came down. He was a neighbor. And then he and I stood in the woman’s kitchen and watched her collapse. It was a mess.”
“Did you know him?” Kathryn asked. “My husband?”
“No,” he said. “I’m sorry.”
“He was older than you.”
“What else did they tell you about him?”
“Eleven years with Vision. Before that, Santa Fe, five years. Before that, Teterboro, two years. Two years Vietnam, DC-3 gunships. Born in Boston. College, Holy Cross. One child, a daughter, fifteen. A wife.”
He thought a minute.
“Tall,” he said. “Six-four? Fit.”
“Good record. Excellent record, actually.”
He scratched the back of one hand with the other.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “I’m sorry I know these facts about your husband yet didn’t know him at all.”
“Did they tell you anything about me?”
“Only that you’re fifteen years younger than your husband. And that you’d be here with your daughter.”
She examined her feet, which were small and white, as if the blood had left them. The soles weren’t clean.
“How many were on board?” she asked.
“A hundred and four.”
“Not full,” she said.
“Not full, no.”
Other images intruded now. A moment of knowledge—what knowledge?—in the cockpit. Jack’s hands at the controls. A body spinning in the air. No. Not even a body. She shook her head roughly.
“I have to tell her alone,” she said.
He nodded quickly, as if that were already understood.
“No,” she said. “I mean you have to leave the house. I don’t want anyone to see this or hear this.”
“I’ll sit in my car,” he said.
She slipped off the jacket he had given her. The telephone rang again, but neither of them moved. In the distance, they could hear the answering machine click on.
She wasn’t prepared for Jack’s voice, deep and amiable, a hint of Boston in the vowels, with its familiar message. She put her face into her hands and waited for the message to be over.
When she looked up, she saw that Robert had been studying her. He glanced away.
“It’s to keep me from talking to the press, isn’t it?” she said. “That’s why you’re here.”
A car rolled into the driveway and crunched on the gravel. The man from the union looked out the window, took the jacket from her, and put it on.
“It’s so I won’t say anything that might make them think pilot error,” she said. “You don’t want them to think pilot error.”
He lifted the telephone receiver off its hook and laid it on the counter.
Lately, Jack and she had hardly ever made love in the kitchen. They had told themselves that Mattie was older now and might come down to the kitchen looking for a snack. Most nights, after Mattie had gone up to her room to listen to her CDs or to talk on the phone, they had just sat at the table reading magazines, too exhausted to put away the dishes or even to talk.
“I’ll tell her now,” she said.
“You understand we can’t stay out there long,” he said.
“They’re from the airline, aren’t they?” she asked, looking through the kitchen window. In the driveway, she could just make out two shadowy shapes emerging from a car. She walked toward the bottom of the stairs.
She looked up the steep incline. There were five hundred steps, at least five hundred. They stretched on and on. She understood that something had been set in motion and was beginning now. She was not sure she had the stamina to make it to the top.
She looked at the man from the union, who was moving through the kitchen to answer the door.
“Mom,” she said, and he turned. “What they usually say is Mom.”
© 1999 by Anita Shreve