by Andrew L. Roberts
Sometimes they offer me coffee, other times just water.
On thirteen occasions now, I have been greeted with, why did you get to live, and not her or him … or them? The anguish behind that sort of thing drives the constant pain that lives in my flesh just a little deeper and gives it a rough twist. This is especially true when the lost ones are children. Times like that, I wish I had wings.
More often though, I am received with grace and kindness, and I realized early on that there’s a lot more goodness in people than there is bad, that charity is more natural than envy. It’s only the kind of man that I used to be who won’t see this … until it’s too late.
Today the mother brings tea, unsweetened, but garnished with a narrow slice of lemon. We sit in the yellow kitchen, warmed by the afternoon sun, slowly being enfolded by the smells of cardamom and almonds, rising from the large plate of braided pulla that waits upon the table between us. The sweet roll is golden and glossy and almost too perfect to cut, let alone eat. None of us are hungry, and so it remains untouched, an offering.
“Se oli nopea?” asks the father. Was it quick?
This is almost always the first question.
“Kyllä,” I reply, answering him in Finnish. I’ve never studied the language, but like Mandarin, Farsi, Portuguese and all the others, it comes as needed. “Yes. I am sure she felt no pain, only fear and the sadness of being taken from the two of you.” Adding, “She did not die in the fire.”
The mother dabs at her tears with a small wad of overused tissue, pulled from the pocket of her apron, now clutched in her small fist. The corners of her mouth try to smile and I know she is relieved that her daughter did not burn to death. It is only a small comfort.
There is a prolonged silence.
The tea in my cup is a soft, amber hue. I usually drink green, but this is a pleasant change for me. I like it.
“When you called,” says the father, speaking up again. “We thought you were from the airline, their insurance representative, you know. Calling about the settlement. When you told my wife that you had actually been on the plane with…” He cannot bring himself to speak his daughter’s name or complete the sentence.
I lift the cup, which feels too fragile in my clumsy hands, and the steam curling from the tea fogs my glasses to soften the view. The scent of the lemon and the Darjeeling together are heavenly. I take a sip and let the hot liquid cool a little within my mouth before swallowing. The tea warms my insides.
Before the crash, and before the flight attendant Judith spoke my name with her final breath, I could never have tasted all of subtleties of tea. Nuance, in all of its forms, is new to me, and a gift like everything else — though that idea falls short when I attempt to express it in words. I am not who I was. I am not what I was. My old voice and my old words have become unwelcome echoes only. I spend most of my time silent, listening to the voices that surround me, the voices of people, animals and objects. It’s an education.
Indeed, the teacup in my hand has been telling me a story, telling me its name and that it used to belong to the dead girl. I can feel where her fingers held the cup a thousand times, and the taste of her lips still lingers there. The cup is sad, but like me, it is also happy to be of use.
“Your daughter spoke to me,“ I say, quite careful of exactly how I say it. There is the truth, and then there are the smaller variations that orbit around the truth itself. Beyond that, all else is falsehood and treachery. “She was grateful,” I continue. “She was enjoying her new life. And she was happy.”
All of this is true.
The word “happy” catches the attention of both mother and father.
“Happy?” the mother asks. She needs more.
“Your daughter was overjoyed when you supported her decision to quit her job and return to school. She said, it was a hard choice, but that you both made it easy. She loved art so much and that comes from the two of you, doesn’t it?”
“Yes,” agrees the father, nodding his head, his eyes closed. I can feel the memories behind his eyelids. Kindergarten portraits, finger paintings and stick-figure mommas and papas, as well as more mature works in oils on canvas, hanging alongside prints by Van Gogh, Monet and Cezanne.
“Art,” he says, “is important. It was a good decision. The right decision.”
The mother is nodding as well, and dabbing away still more tears with that tired wad of tissue.
“But,” I say. “More importantly, she would want you to know that she loved the both of you, far more than art. You’re as much her treasures as she is yours.”
And then they both fall apart, hiding their faces behind their hands, gasping for breaths between convulsive sobs. The color of their pain explodes all about them in a swirling of blue, red and black and gray. Fluid, but moving more like smoke or clouds, it rages over them in thunderheads, crackling with tiny bolts of electricity.
I take another sip of tea, then another and another, looking away as I wait for the storm to pass. Deeper in the cup the Darjeeling becomes slightly more bitter, more acidic, but it still remains a very suitable tea for sad conversations, and for healings. Underneath the bitterness is the taste of camellias that never bloomed. If the cup itself could weep, it would.
Glancing up, I notice that the angle of the sunlight breaking through the garden window is much lower than when I first arrived. It’s turning orange where it touches the sharper edges of the objects in the yellow room. In my breast pocket the small snapshot that has been silent since my arrival speaks to me now, and I know it’s time to bring her out. I do so and set picture face up on the floral tablecloth between mother and father. Saying nothing, I return to my tea.
Her name is Aallotar, for Lady Of The Waves, but she looks more like a Sara to me. In the photo, she has black hair with teal highlights, and she wears it short, all feathery, in an uneven pageboy to show off the perfect shape of her face. It is an open face, full of smiles that you might see from nearly every angle, and her large, blue-gray eyes gaze out from the image with compassion, and maybe a little mischief. She is pretty, though not conventional, and I can tell that she could have broken a thousand hearts if she had wanted to, but never did, not a single one … except unintentionally, and with her death.
“This is from that day?” asks her mother, seeing the photograph.
“Yes,” I answer.
“Onboard the plane?”
“Yes, shortly after takeoff. She was excited about coming home for her birthday. You can see that.”
“Why would you take a picture of a stranger?” asks the father.
“Because … it’s what she wanted.” This answer is all that I can offer, all that they might understand. It is usually enough, but it is only an orbital truth not the truth itself.
The father lifts the photo as if it may shatter or crumble to pieces, holding it by its edges. As he gazes at the picture, the flavor of his tears begin to change and the swirling colors of their sorrow settle and fade. Sunlight from the garden window stretches across the room to surround the man and his wife. The light embraces them and they pull closer together.
“I have to go now,” I say. “I only came to bring you that.”
Then, I leave, though I know it will be hours before they realize it.
And that is how it is done.
• • •
Outside, I close the front door, but before I can turn around completely, a fist the size of a softball smashes my nose and makes a loud crunch. I see black stars. My glasses are ruined.
I’m not a big man, but nor am I truly small, and yet this perfect punch drops me cold as a cod, rump down first, followed by both shoulders, leaving my carcass laid out flat among the tulips in the flowerbed beside the porch.
I am blinded for an instant, insensible, but not in the least surprised. There is no need to look up to know who it is that stands over me. This assault was preordained and precisely on time. It’s Stephen Marcum. He is Judith’s husband, number 76, and the next to last upon my list.
“Stand up,” he commands. His voice is cold, not terribly angry, but a little psychotic nonetheless.
“Why?” I ask. “So you can hit me a second time? So you can hurt me?”
“No,” he says. “I don’t want to hit you again. I didn’t mean to hit you at all. I want to talk. I came for answers. Now get up.”
He is telling the truth, mostly. He did not mean to hit me. Not really. It simply happened. He’s a good man, but teetering upon the cusp of self-destruction and brimming with violence. He lost control, and his body did the most natural thing that I can imagine in these circumstances. I have been Stephen Marcum in my past. I have been the angry man, losing control, throwing punches, breaking noses, hurting people and worse, and never for any good damned reason.
He, at least, is justified. Or so he believes. And I cannot disagree.
I hold out my hand to him. “A little help then, please. If you don’t mind.”
His calloused paw closes about mine, and he hauls me up from the flowers with a single tug. As I swat the soil from my trousers and remove my coat to give it a good shake, I survey the tulips. They have been devastated, crushed and pulped by the apocalyptic collision of my body. Their yellow and red blooms look as though they’ve been pressed within the pages a young girl’s diary. They have lost their capacity to sing, but with the right word, I know they will resurrect come nightfall.
I sniff back the blood, which is dripping from my nose and whisper the command, as though I’m talking to myself. Then folding my coat over my left arm, I pinch my nostrils shut. Aallotar’s family will never know what happened out here to their garden. They do not need to, and their flowers deserve better as well.
“I knew you’d be here,” says Stephen, holding out small a package of Kleenex. “I have your list. I figured it out. You’re following the seating chart on the manifest.”
I shrug, accept the tissue, open the wrapper and hold the whole pack to my nose. “Of course I am,” I say, “But I’d have told you, if you had asked. You only needed to ask.”
His glassy eyes look confounded by this, and he stares dumbly at me for a moment.
“I want you to come with me,” he says. “I have a gun. I’m not afraid to use it. I know what you did. I know what you are.”
Again, he is telling the truth. He does have a gun. It is hidden in a brown leather holster, nestled at the small of his back, pressed in tight to his spine. The gun’s name is Bob, and Bob is an evil, unregistered little piece of blue-black metal, purchased in a darkened alley. Bob enjoys wounding and instilling fear in people, but of course, Stephen doesn’t know this. Just as he cannot truly know what I am. To him the gun is just an inanimate object. It is a tool only, whereas I am just an ex-felon, a killer, fairly fresh from prison, who is alive while so many far better people are not.
He plans on taking me to his hotel. The words of his intentions are spelled out in crooked pink letters upon the skin above his brows. Hotel. Gun. Answers. Justice. There are other words too, but they are as jumbled and as conflicted as the man himself. They are ugly, writhing words, which I do not want to read and will not repeat.
To Stephen, I am a symbol that God must not exist.
“I’m a little hungry,” I say. “Can we stop for supper?” The aroma of Mrs. Vanhanen’s pulla roll is still strong in my memory, making my stomach smile, and I suddenly have an appetite for the first time in over a month.
Stephen nods absently and motions for me to walk ahead of him. “Across the street,” he says. “The green Citroen. That’s mine.” He digs about in his pocket and pulls out the electronic key. With two presses of a button, he unlocks the car, the engine comes to life, and the hydraulics lift the car into drive position. I pause in wonder. This will be my first ride in a Citroen, and most likely my last.
• • •
Fifteen minutes later, give or take, we are sitting in the hotel’s dining room. It is a huge chamber, high ceilinged, with its northern exposure expressed by a single picture window that looks out onto the lake. Everything inside is polished, long cabin timbers and the color of maple syrup. Everything outside is turquoise water, cobalt blue sky, and great heaps of cumulous clouds that are so white they look silver, except for where they’re being turned pink by the lowering sun.
It would be easy to get lost in this room, and easier still to get lost in the view — if I was alone, but I am not.
Stephen is across the booth from me, brooding. A waiter hovers nearby polishing cutlery and glasses. Another couple, a husband and wife, sits five tables away, sharing their dessert of wild raspberries with crème fraîche and powdered sugar. Last of all, there is a young woman at the other end of the room, near the bar, pretending to play the piano. She is about twenty-three, a pretty blonde in a blue and white striped sailor shirt — just like Picasso’s — and she is by herself. Her long fingers stroke the black keys only and never touch the white, so that her music sounds Chinese, and it’s like she is taking all of us on a slow boat ride down the Yangtze.
That thought reminds me of an old girlfriend from high school. The memory almost makes me feel good for a moment. I smile, not meaning to. I shouldn’t have.
Stephen shifts in his seat, and sort of sighs and groans at the same time. He is visibly irritated and impatient, and my stupid grin does not help.
“You should try this pie,” I suggest. “It’s the best.”
“I don’t like pie,” he says, a little too quickly, his hands fidgeting with the thick, manila envelope, resting upon his otherwise empty plate.
“That’s a tragedy,“ I say.
“Tragedy?” he growls. “Really?”
It was a poor choice of words, but accurate.
“I just meant it’s unfortunate. The taste of warm apple pie wearing a melted slice of cheddar is something special. It’s something that shouldn’t be missed in life. You’re welcome to have a bite, if you’d like.”
An angry bull, he shakes his head slowly from side to side. His hands have closed into fists again and his knuckles are turning white.
“What is wrong with you?” he asks, between clenched teeth.
I am not sure if this is a real question or if he’s being rhetorical, so I answer, saying, “Many things, but I am working on them. I don’t mean to be annoying. And I am sorry that it’s me who’s here with you now, instead of Judith.”
“Stop!” the word bursts from his lips. “You don’t get to say her name. You don’t have that right.”
Stephen’s correct. I don’t have the right. But I am an odd creature. What else can I be? I have been through the laundry after all. Died, had my soul removed, scrubbed on a washing board, rung out, snapped like a wet T-shirt, before being shoved back in place, still stained here and there, but all squeaky clean. I am not exactly new, but not quite the same either. I’ve been improved … for a little while at least.
Stephen’s body is telling him to hit me again. Shouting it from the cellular level. And Bob is excited, hoping he will be drawn and fired directly into my face, not once, but several times. Stephen, though, is better than that, and is trying terribly hard to do what Judith would have wanted him to do. So he does his best to calm himself.
“I need to know something,” he says. The words come out sounding raspy, as though they are being dragged in chains from his lungs over dry ice.
“I’ll answer anything you ask,” I say, my fork poised a few inches from my mouth. “I owe you that.”
Of all the people whose names I wear stitched to my soul, Stephen deserves the truth most of all, without any ambiguity or subtlety or … nuance. I will give it to him, piece-by-piece, mouthful by mouthful if necessary, until the plate is clean.
“Were you really on the plane when it crashed?”
His question surprises me.
“Yes, of course I was.”
“Did you cause it?”
“Did I cause the crash? No.”
“Do you know who did?”
“Nobody. It was mechanical. There wasn’t any negligence. Nobody was drunk. Nobody was at fault.”
“How can you explain this?” He opens the envelope and pulls out one of the few things left in the world that I can still hate.
He sets it on the table, killing my newfound appetite.
I lower my fork and push aside the unfinished pie.
It’s a photograph of me at the crash site; the one from the magazine cover that generated all of the outrage.
It is an ugly thing.
I see the chunks of wreckage on the tarmac. Fire, orange and magenta, and smoke, black and white. So many seats. Some are empty, but most are still holding their passengers. Without exception, the bodies are all mangled — including Aallotar, who is broken and twisted about like a skein of yarn, with her left arm and hand extended and open as if to catch the rain that is falling all about us. Her face is masked in matted hair and blood, and she is no longer pretty.
By comparison, I appear immaculate. My brand new, perfectly pressed, courtesy of Prison Ministries, gray, wool-blend suit is untorn, unblemished, unscorched. My hands hang limp at my sides. My bare feet and open palms are bloody, but you can’t see that in the picture. I look as though I am standing on a street corner, oblivious to what is really all about me, waiting for a bus or taxi. There is no expression upon my face whatsoever. My eyes are empty. I am alive in the midst of absolute death, but I appear dead to the world, because in that moment I still was. This was my moment in Gehenna.
“How can you explain this?” Stephen asks again. “Your suit isn’t even wrinkled.”
“I can’t,” I say, and the tears begin slipping down my cheeks. “I wish I could, but I can’t. Or rather I can, but … it’ll be hard for you to understand.”
“Try me,” says Stephen.
“It was a gift,” I say.
Unimpressed, he pulls out copies of my police and prison records along with a stack of newspaper clippings.
“This is you,” Stephen says. “I’ve read it, every page. You’re a killer. And I’m supposed to believe you work miracles?”
“No,” I say. “You’re not.”
And now he begins removing more pictures from the envelope. They are copies of the snapshots that I have been giving to the families. There could be as many as seventy-four of them at this point, but I don’t try to count them.
“Why?” he asks, laying them out like tarot cards upon the table, face up. “Why would you take pictures of every person who was going to die on the plane before it crashed? How could you possibly know?”
“I didn’t know, and did not take them,” I say.
“Then who did?” Stephen leans in towards me. His eyes are preternaturally bright.
“Nobody,” I say, wiping my tears with my napkin, but more keep coming. “They’re from my coat’s pocket. That’s all.”
This sounds lame even to me, but it’s true.
His left hand shoots across the table, and catches hold of my tie’s triangular knot, jerking me forward. His right hand comes up and cocks back even with his ear. His fist begins to shake there, uncontrollably for a moment, until with the greatest effort, Stephen is able to lower it again and his left hand releases me.
He begins rubbing his eyes and scrubbing at the stubble upon his chin and face. He looks a million years old.
The happy couple nearby sees none of this, the piano player continues taking us on her boat ride, and our waiter misses the moment completely because, he has dropped three spoons and a knife and is bent down, retrieving them.
“I can show you,” I say. “It won’t be easy, but I can do that for you, if you let me.”
“Yes. Show you.”
I hand him my coat, and tell him to reach into its breast pocket. He does so, but says there is nothing inside.
“Are you sure?” I ask.
“It’s empty,” he answers.
I nod. “That’s good. Now wait.”
I close my eyes and listen.
The woman at the piano pauses. She finishes her cocktail with a loud flourish, using her skinny red straw to suck up every last drop from the bottom of the tall glass. The ice cubes tinkle brightly as she sets the glass back down upon its napkin.
In the silent space between the last icy clink and the first note as she resumes playing, I hear the photo whispering from within the pocket.
“Okay,” I say. “Try now.”
Stephen glares at me. His expression is more dubious than suspicious, but he complies. And as his fingertips touch the edge of the photograph, his face goes pale. He does not immediately pull out the picture.
“Okay, so you’re a magician as well as a murderer,” he says. “What of it?”
“I am not a magician. Take it out.”
His eyes narrow slightly as he angles his head a little to left, thinking to himself. At last, he draws the photograph from the pocket. When it comes forth, the picture is face down. He does not turn it over.
“It’s her isn’t it?” He asks.
“On the plane, like the others?”
“You’ll have to look for yourself.”
“And I’m supposed to believe you did not take it?”
“The picture did not exist until this moment.”
Stephen’s expression goes through a series of minute changes as he struggles to compose himself. He attempts to scowl, to grin and then to look unmoved, but he is unsuccessful with all. Fear however, does not hide very well in his deep green eyes.
He turns over the photo and chokes upon his own breath.
And there is Judith — lovely, loving, living Judith — smiling, crossing her eyes and making a goofy face. Her hair is disheveled as she leans upon her pink pillow, shoulders bare, the window to their backyard and their garden beyond all bright and green behind her.
It is not a picture from the plane, but it is from the day she died. And Stephen remembers the moment, the private joke, and the kisses that immediately followed. He remembers, because he was there.
But he also recalls what came next. The stupid argument over an empty carton of milk left in the refrigerator, which then led to complaints about toothpaste squeezed from the middle of the tube, followed by toilet seats left up and toilet seats left down. It was the most inane of all their arguments, but it ended without resolution or apologies. Worst of all, it silenced their last opportunity to say I love you, before Judith left for work and her last day on earth.
And that is the crux of it.
“How, how, how did you,” he stammers.
“There is another picture in the pocket,” I tell him.
His eyes jump from the snapshot to lock on mine. He starts to shake his head, but his hand moves against his will, dipping into the pocket for a third time.
He sucks in a quick breath and begins trembling as though it’s twenty below in the dining room. He is becoming terrified, but this is what he needs. Otherwise, Bob will have his way and Stephen will become who I once was. And I can’t let that happen.
The second picture is of him.
He is younger. High school age. He wears a blue and white letterman’s jacket and is grinning as he looks over the shoulders of his friends and directly into the camera’s lens.
But a camera did not take this. It is the moment that he first looked into Judith’s eyes and really saw her, realized he loved her and that she loved him, and that they would be together always.
Stephen exhales, and forty days and thirty-nine nights of guilt and anguish pour from his lungs, his shoulders, his stomach and his heart.
And it is done.
While Stephen becomes lost in the memory and the image, I slip my coat away from him, drop a freshly minted twenty upon the table and leave the dining room.
• • •
A little while later, I am sitting by the lake, on a comfortable, mossy log and having a conversation with the stray dog who lives here. She’s a sweet, little Terrier-Chihuahua mix, the color and shape of an elongated kidney bean, shorthaired with warm, honey-colored eyes, large upright ears and white gloves on her forepaws. When I speak, she turns her head this way and that, but unlike most dogs, happily meets my eyes, and holds them fixed with her own. She’s been sleeping under an upturned boat since being abandoned by her owners last Wednesday, but does not complain. This is a very fine dog, as nearly all dogs are, and so I promise her that her new owner is going appreciate her far more than the last. She tells me she used be called Sweet Pea, but that it’s not her real name, which she is just about to tell me when Stephen interrupts.
“Do you always talk with dogs?” he asks as he sits down on my right.
“Every chance I get,” I say. “Especially now that they talk back.”
Not-Sweet-Pea gives Stephen the once over with her eyes and nose before wagging her tail in tentative approval. His smell is kindness, with overtones of sadness, and these are the most important aromas to a dog when looking for companionship. Fortunately, the rotten, bitter root of his anger is gone.
“Do you like dogs?” I ask.
“I love them.” He holds out his hand, palm down, makes no attempt to pet Not-Sweet-Pea, but allows her to make the first move. Not-Sweet-Pea sniffs the hand again, puts her head directly under it and gives it a few insistent nudges, until Stephen begins to scratch behind her ears. Her tail is now wagging like crazy.
“Judith and I always wanted a dog, but she was allergic,” he says. “She even offered to gets shots, but the doctor said it wasn’t wise. He said it would be hard on the dog if it got attached and then the shots stopped working. Judith would have loved this little fella.”
“Girl,” I correct him. “She’s a girl, not a fella.”
Stephen leans down and apologizes. That’s when Not-Sweet-Pea gives his face an unexpected lick, and so seals deal, though neither she or Stephen realize it yet.
He says, all at once, “I’m sorry I hit you earlier. Sorry about everything.”
“I’m not,” I say. “I could use a bit more of a beating, to tell the truth. I’ve had one coming for a long time. I don’t blame you.”
“You’re not at all what I expected.”
“What did you expect?” I ask.
“A con artist,” he says. “A grifter. Somebody trying to take advantage. Somebody looking for an angle. You know?”
“Yes, I do. What is it you think you’ve found instead?”
His eyes take on that inward look as he ponders my question. It takes a while and Not-Sweet-Pea continues to have her ears and neck scratched and rubbed. The sun has set, but there’s still a hint of daylight at the edge of the sky. The water of the lake is black glass, all smooth and untroubled and a perfect mirror for the stars. The boats have put in for the night. There are no lights burning on the far shore. Not yet.
The night air smells like pines and promises to be kept.
“I think you’re an angel,” Stephen says at last.
His voice is the color of resurrected tulips.
I smile and the pain in my side and in all my other hidden wounds ease just a little, but I am sure the look in my eyes is one of denial. I can’t help it. I know what I used to be and still have a difficult time admitting what I am now … especially to myself.
“I know what you did,” says Stephen, the words sounding different this time than when he said them earlier. “I mean, I know about prison and why you were there. But you don’t seem like … the man in the papers that I read.”
“I am and I’m not. It’s hard to explain. But once you’ve taken a life, even if you didn’t mean to, you’re a killer. I wish I wasn’t, but wishing won’t change the facts.”
“And that’s what all this is about isn’t it? Your second chance?”
Not-Sweet-Pea stands up on her hind legs, and climbs directly into Stephen’s lap. He doesn’t try to stop her. Instead, his arms unconsciously close about the dog and she curls up in his embraces. He continues to scratch and comfort her.
“No,” I say. “Not exactly.”
“But you’re performing miracles for those who lost somebody on the plane, like you did for the Vanhanens today … like you did for me?”
“It’s not like that, Stephen.”
“Then what would you call it?”
And this is the hardest part. Hardest for me, because to do what I have to do next means I have to look back and see myself before the crash. That isn’t a pretty picture. But it’s necessary, and I have no real choice. Not if I want to finish what I started.
“When I boarded the plane,” I say slowly. “Judith asked me if I wouldn’t mind sitting at the emergency exit, since I couldn’t drink. When I asked how she knew I couldn’t drink. She reached about and removed the small paper tag that was still safety-pinned to the back collar of my coat. Pastor Joe, she said. He asked me to look out for you. He said you shouldn’t drink, so I figure the emergency seat would be a good spot for you.
“That damned tag embarrassed the hell out of me, and I’m a little pissed at the prison’s chaplain for setting me up like this. Judith must’ve seen it in my eyes, but she told me not to worry about it, and showed me to the seat.
“During the flight, she came to check on me and we talked. Telling me her name, asking me mine, and stuff like that. Innocuous things, you know. We talked about The Mount of Olives Ranch where I’d be serving my parole, teaching English, but when she asked how long I had been inside, I lied at first and told her six years. Then I immediately fessed up and said it was really eight. Eight years of a twenty-year stretch. ‘What did you do?’ she asked. And I felt exactly like Tom Joad then, from The Grapes of Wrath, except I didn’t have his spine or his angst. I couldn’t tell her straight out. She was refreshing and kind, and I didn’t want to see the look in her eyes that I knew would be there if I said the word, homicide.
“In my tongue-tied silence, she figured it out. ‘Well,’ she said, without an ounce of judgment in her voice, ‘It must’ve been very bad what you did. But you’re ashamed of it and have regret. I can see that plainly enough. So I hope you get a chance to make amends for what you did. To make it right. I think all people deserve that.’
“‘Thanks,’ I said, ‘but I think it will take a lot more than an apology to make what I did right.’
“And then Judith smiled and said, ‘Well, if that’s what you really think, then I’ll pray that you get the chance to make as many amends as its takes to prove otherwise. It’s a promise.’
“I wasn’t sure at first what she meant, or why she felt I deserved anything other than a kick in the teeth, but then Judith touched my hand, and it was the weirdest thing. For a moment, I swear it was like being touched by somebody who knew me inside and out, and better than I knew myself. I nearly started to cry.
“After that she went back to work, but every so often she’d make a point to stop and visit. Gave me free ginger ales, some peanuts and even a couple of big macaroons that she’d lifted from the first class galley. And though I know it’s going to sound silly, just eating those cookies, somehow made me feel … human … maybe for the first time in my life. Then the plane pitched suddenly and things started going very wrong.”
I stop the story here. I need to take a breath. I take several. It’s still not enough.
Stephen hugs Not-Sweet-Pea closer and both of them wait for me to continue. They have a long wait, but this little dog and this big man are patient. Neither speaks. They just wait.
“I don’t like talking about what happened on the plane,” I say, starting up again. “It’s too frightening. Too many people moaning, shouting, babies crying, babies who were about to die. And I was all sick and selfish and angry. I thought, eight years in the slam and God gives me an early parole just so he can kill me in a plane crash. How is that possible? I kept looking at the emergency door and the instructions, trying to read them, wishing I had read them earlier, because in that moment the words could have been in Aramaic for all the sense they were making to me. I was a screw-up all the way to the end. That’s what I thought anyway.
“Then there was an announcement telling us the pilot was going to make an emergency landing at a small local airport. The voice on the loudspeaker told us to assume our crash positions. After that, all I could hear were the up and down whine of the turbines and body of the plane groaning as it flexed and strained. Underneath all that was the bawling of infants and the subdued sobs and men and women crying into their pillows and calling for God. I wanted to vomit. Felt it in my throat. But then somebody sat down in the seat next to me. The buckle of a seatbelt clicked, and I smelled bergamot and lavender and felt an arm loop about my shoulders and pull me close.
“It was Judith,” says Stephen. “Wasn’t it?”
“Yes,” I say. “It was Judith. She’d left her seat to sit with me. I looked up and saw her staring straight ahead, ghost-white, tears in her eyes, but not panicking. Her mouth was moving, but I couldn’t hear what she was saying, until the end. And even now, I can’t believe what I heard.
“It was my name. I heard her say it, just as we hit the ground. She said my name with her very last breath. And I’m so terribly sorry about that. Of all the names she could have said in that moment, she said mine — the most worthless name in all the world. It should have been yours. I wish it had been.”
And what should have been Stephen’s first question comes now, at last.
“Did she feel any pain?”
And this time, unlike all the others, the question makes every one of my wounds sing out like fire and iron on my flesh.
“I don’t know,” I say, barely able to get the words out, wishing I could lie, knowing that I can’t. “I don’t think so,” I say. “But I don’t know. When I came to, I wasn’t in my seat. I was standing just like in that photo your brought. My shoes were gone. My feet and hands bleeding and I barely knew who I was. And all around me were the dead, their spirits talking to me, telling me things they needed me to know, telling me the names of their mothers, fathers, husbands, wives, girlfriends, boyfriends, sons and daughters. Telling me where they lived. Telling me what to say for them. And I was helpless.”
We both go quiet and Not-Sweet-Pea too has nothing to say.
Finally, Stephen shakes his head again.
“I still don’t get it,” he says. “No offense, but why should you get a miracle. There had to be others praying on the plane that day. Why did God listen to Judith and nobody else?”
“That is exactly the point. I didn’t get a miracle, Stephen. I am the miracle. Judith’s part was for me to get all of the chances I needed to make amends. The pictures and the messages that I deliver, that’s the rest of it, the bigger part of it. The miracle wasn’t given to me. The miracle is that I’m given to all of them … and to you. Do you understand?”
Stephen stops scratching Not-Sweet-Pea. He becomes lost in thought again. I don’t try to read him. It will require time, and I am ready to let him stay there as long as it takes. That’s when the dog locks eyes with me again and tells me that she’s made her decision.
Her words are simple, pure emotion without the complications of extraneous intellect, and they are all the things that make her species the lesser angels that they are. Stephen is very lucky.
“She wants to stay with you,” I say.
Stephen glances up. “Pardon?”
“The dog. She wants you to know that she picks you, of all the people in the world, and wants to be yours.”
“She said all that?”
“What can I say?”
I am not sure if he is serious or joking.
“I think you should say yes.”
Stephen is bewildered by the seriousness of my tone, but when the little dog stands up in his lap, puts her paws on his chest and licks his face two, three and four times, he smiles and makes no effort to stop her. Instead he chuckles, “Well, I guess don’t have much choice now, do I?”
“No, not really.”
Not-Sweet-Pea is overjoyed. Her tail is wagging in circles like an eggbeater.
“Okay, girl,” says Stephen. “I say yes. I’ll be yours.”
And now the most unexpected thing begins to happen. A soft warmth, like the slow melting of butter on fresh pancakes, is spreading out from the center of my chest and I can feel each of my hidden wounds stop burning as they are overcome by this new sensation. The warmth fills my navel, moves over my shoulders and slips around my ribs on both sides, to pool at the center of my back, until it too fades away.
All of the wounds but one are now gone.
I stand up and button my coat.
“It was nice meeting you Stephen. I am glad you came out here and we could talk.”
Stephen nods, but asks, “You’re leaving?”
“Yes. I have one last visit to make.”
“You’re heading to Crookston, aren’t you? To see the Martins.”
“What will you say?”
“I don’t know.”
Stephen eases Not-Sweet-Pea from his lap and stands up to face me.
“I think it’s going to take a lot more than a photograph,” he says.
“There are no more photographs.”
“Then what are you going to do?”
“I can only hope I’ll know when I get there. Or maybe I won’t. Maybe that’s how it has to be for me to make my amends.”
And suddenly as I say the word, I hear it all shimmering, and clear. That word that has haunted me and driven me since the day we fell from the sky, breaks apart in my mind’s eye, and I see it like I’ve never seen it before.
And I finally get it — like looking through a kaleidoscope and broken mirrors — I start to understand what this all means … for me.
“Stephen,” I say. “Here’s a revelation. Whatever I’m supposed to do and however this all works out in the end, it will be exactly how it’s meant to work out. Good or bad, it’ll be all right. Maybe there’s another beating waiting for me in Crookston. Or another loaded gun. Maybe that’s where everything catches up with me and I die for good like I should’ve in the crash. Because this next part is about me only, and about me making amends. It’s not about me being forgiven. That’s already been done. This … this is about an apology and embracing the consequences, whatever they may be, no matter how painful or how final. And either way it will be a relief. I can live or die with that.”
“Is that what you want?” asks Stephen.
It’s a strange question. I’ve never thought about it — never thought about what I wanted beyond the next name on the list. The answer though comes easy, like the taste of tea from Aallotar’s cup.
“I want to be useful,” I say, and now it’s my turn to sigh.
Stephen puts his hand upon my shoulder.
“Okay,” he says. “Then it’s settled. We’re going with you.”
“Why would you want to do that?” I ask. I am puzzled, but becoming oddly elated.
He squeezes my shoulder. “It’s what Judith would want me to do. It’s what I want to do.”
Not-Sweet-Pea barks in agreement.
And all I can think is, “Amen,” as the lights across the lake begin to kindle in the darkness.
Copyright © 2017 by Andrew L. Roberts