The Last Flight by Julie Clark

Prologue


            John F. Kennedy Airport, New York

            Tuesday, February 22

            The Day of the Crash

            Terminal 4 swarms with people, the smell of wet wool and jet fuel thick around me. I wait for her, just inside the sliding glass doors, the frigid winter wind slamming into me whenever they open, and instead force myself to visualize a balmy Puerto Rican breeze, laced with the scent of hibiscus and sea salt. The soft, accented Spanish swirling around me like a warm bath, blotting out the person I was before.

            The air outside rumbles as planes lift into the sky, while inside garbled announcements blare over the loudspeaker. Somewhere behind me, an older woman speaks in sharp, staccato Italian. But I don’t look away from the curb, my eyes trained on the crowded sidewalk outside the terminal, searching for her, anchoring my belief—and my entire future—on the fact that she will come.

            I know only three things about her: her name, what she looks like, and that her flight departs this morning. My advantage—she doesn’t know anything about me. I fight down panic that I might have missed her somehow. That she might already be gone, and with her, the opportunity for me to slip out of this life and into a new one.

            People disappear every day. The man standing in line at Starbucks, buying his last cup of coffee before he gets into his car and drives into a new life, leaving behind a family who will always wonder what happened. Or the woman sitting in the last row of a Greyhound bus, staring out the window as the wind blows strands of hair across her face, wiping away a history too heavy to carry. You might be shoulder to shoulder with someone living their last moments as themselves and never know it.

            But very few people actually stop to consider how difficult it is to truly vanish. The level of detail needed to eliminate even the tiniest trace. Because there’s always something. A small thread, a seed of truth, a mistake. It only takes a tiny pinprick of circumstance to unravel it all. A phone call at the moment of departure. A fender bender three blocks before the freeway on-ramp. A canceled flight.

            A last-minute change of itinerary.

            Through the plate glass window, fogged with condensation, I see a black town car glide to the curb and I know it’s her, even before the door opens and she steps out. When she does, she doesn’t say goodbye to whoever is in the back seat with her. Instead, she scurries across the pavement and through the sliding doors, so close her pink cashmere sweater brushes against my arm, soft and inviting. Her shoulders are hunched, as if waiting for the next blow, the next attack. This is a woman who knows how easily a fifty-thousand-dollar rug can shred the skin from her cheek. I let her pass and take a deep breath, exhaling my tension. She’s here. I can begin.

            I lift the strap of my bag over my shoulder and follow, slipping into the security line directly in front of her, knowing that people on the run only look behind them, never ahead. I listen, and wait for my opening.

            She doesn’t know it yet, but soon, she will become one of the vanished. And I will fade, like a wisp of smoke into the sky, and disappear.





Claire


            Monday, February 21

            The Day before the Crash

            “Danielle,” I say, entering the small office that sits adjacent to our living room. “Please let Mr. Cook know I’m going to the gym.”

            She looks up from her computer, and I see her gaze snag on the bruise along the base of my throat, concealed with a thin layer of makeup. I automatically adjust my scarf to cover it, knowing she won’t mention it. She never does.

            “We have a meeting at Center Street Literacy at four,” she says. “You’ll be late again.” Danielle keeps track of my calendar and my missteps, and I’ve pegged her as the one most likely to report when I don’t arrive on time to meetings, or when I cancel appointments that my husband, Rory, deems important. If I’m going to run for Senate, we don’t have the luxury of making mistakes, Claire.