At two-thirty Saturday morning, in Los Angeles, Joe Carpenter woke, clutching a pillow to his chest, calling his lost wife’s name in the darkness. The anguished and haunted quality of his own voice had shaken him from sleep. Dreams fell from him not all at once but in trembling veils, as attic dust falls off rafters when a house rolls with an earthquake.
When he realized that he did not have Michelle in his arms, he held fast to the pillow anyway. He had come out of the dream with the scent of her hair. Now he was afraid that any movement he made would cause that memory to fade and leave him with only the sour smell of his night sweat.
Inevitably, no weight of stillness could hold the memory in all its vividness. The scent of her hair receded like a balloon rising, and soon it was beyond his grasp.
Bereft, he got up and went to the nearest of two windows. His bed, which consisted of nothing but a mattress on the floor, was the only furniture, so he did not have to be concerned about stumbling over obstructions in the gloom.
The studio apartment was one large room with a kitchenette, a closet, and a cramped bathroom, all over a two-car detached garage in upper Laurel Canyon. After selling the house in Studio City, he had brought no furniture with him, because dead men needed no such comforts. He had come here to die.
For ten months he had been paying the rent, waiting for the morning when he would fail to wake.
The window faced the rising canyon wall, the ragged black shapes of evergreens and eucalyptuses. To the west was a fat moon glimpsed through the trees, a silvery promise beyond the bleak urban woods.
He was surprised that he was still not dead after all this time. He was not alive, either. Somewhere between. Halfway in the journey. He had to find an ending, because for him there could never be any going back.
After fetching an icy bottle of beer from the refrigerator in the kitchenette, Joe returned to the mattress. He sat with his back against the wall.
Beer at two-thirty in the morning. A sliding-down life.
He wished that he were capable of drinking himself to death. If he could drift out of this world in a numbing alcoholic haze, he might not care how long his departure required.
Too much booze would irrevocably blur his memories, however, and his memories were as sacred to him as the impression of Christ’s face on the Shroud of Turin was precious to the priests who believed in its authenticity and dedicated their lives to its preservation. He allowed himself only a few beers or glasses of wine at a time.
Other than the faint tree-filtered glimmer of moonlight on the window glass, the only light in the room came from the backlit buttons on the telephone keypad beside the mattress.
He knew only one person to whom he could talk frankly about his despair in the middle of the night — or in broad daylight. Though he was only thirty-seven, his mom and dad were long gone. He had no brothers or sisters. Friends had tried to comfort him after the catastrophe, but he had been too pained to talk about what had happened, and he had kept them at a distance so aggressively that he had offended most of them.
Now he picked up the phone, put it in his lap, and called Michelle’s mother, Beth McKay.
In Virginia, nearly three thousand miles away, she picked up the phone on the first ring. ‘Joe?’
‘Did I wake you?’
‘You know me, dear — early to bed and up before dawn.’
‘Henry?’ he asked, referring to Michelle’s father.
‘Oh, the old beast could sleep through Armageddon,’ she said affectionately.
She was a kind and gentle woman, full of compassion for Joe even as she coped with her own loss. She possessed an uncommon strength.
At the funeral, both Joe and Henry had needed to lean on Beth, and she had been a rock for them. Hours later, however, well after midnight, Joe had discovered her on the patio behind the Studio City house, sitting in a glider in her pyjamas, hunched like an ancient crone, tortured by grief, muffling her sobs in a pillow that she had carried with her from the spare room, trying not to burden her husband or her son—in—law with her own pain.
Joe sat beside her, but she didn’t want her hand held or an arm around her shoulders. She flinched at his touch. Her anguish was so intense that it had scraped her nerves raw, until a murmur of commiseration was like a scream to her, until a loving hand scorched like a branding iron. Reluctant to leave her alone, he had picked up the long-handled net and skimmed the swimming pool: circling the water, scooping gnats and leaves off the black surface at two o’clock in the morning, not even able to see what he was doing, just grimly circling, circling, skimming, skimming, while Beth wept into the pillow, circling and circling until there was nothing to strain from the clear water except the reflections of cold uncaring stars. Eventually, having wrung all the tears from herself, Beth rose from the glider, came to him, and pried the net out of his hands. She had led him upstairs and tucked him in bed as though he were a child, and he had slept deeply for the first time in days.
Now, on the phone with her at a lamentable distance, Joe set aside his half-finished beer. ‘Is it dawn there yet, Beth?’
‘Just a breath ago.’
‘Are you sitting at the kitchen table watching it through the big window? Is the sky pretty?’
‘Still black in the west, indigo overhead, and out to the east, a fan of pink and coral and sapphire like Japanese silk.’
As strong as Beth was, Joe called her regularly not just for the strength she could offer, but because he liked to listen to her talk. The particular timbre of her voice and her soft Virginia accent were the same as Michelle’s had been.
He said, ‘You answered the phone with my name.’
‘Who else would it have been, dear?’
‘Am I the only one who ever calls this early?’
‘Rarely others. But this morning. . . it could only be you.’
The worst had happened one year ago to the day, changing their lives forever. This was the first anniversary of their loss.
She said, ‘I hope you’re eating better, Joe. Are you still losing weight?’
‘No,’ he lied.
Gradually during the past year, he had become so indifferent to food that three months ago he began dropping weight. He had dropped twenty pounds to date.
‘Is it going to be a hot day there?’ he asked.
‘Stifling hot and humid. There are some clouds, but we’re not supposed to get rain, no relief. The clouds in the east are fringed with gold and full of pink. The sun’s all the way out of bed now.’
‘It doesn’t seem like a year already, does it, Beth?’
‘Mostly not. But sometimes it seems ages ago.’
‘I miss them so much,’ he said. ‘I’m so lost without them.’
‘Oh, Joe. Honey, Henry and I love you. You’re like a son to us. You are a son to us.’
‘I know, and I love you too, very much. But it’s not enough, Beth, it’s not enough.’ He took a deep breath. ‘This year, getting through, it’s been hell. I can’t handle another year like this.’
‘It’ll get better with time.’
‘I’m afraid it won’t. I’m scared. I’m no good alone, Beth.’
‘Have you thought some more about going back to work, Joe?’ Before the accident, he had been a crime reporter at the Los Angeles Post. His days as a journalist were over.
‘I can’t bear the sight of the bodies, Beth.’
He was unable to look upon a victim of a drive-by shooting or a car-jacking, regardless of age or sex, without seeing Michelle or Chrissie or Nina lying bloody and battered before him.
‘You could do other kinds of reporting. You’re a good writer, Joe. Write some human interest stories. You need to be working, doing something that’ll make you feel useful again.’
Instead of answering her, he said, ‘I don’t function alone. I just want to be with Michelle. I want to be with Chrissie and Nina.’
‘Someday you will be,’ she said, for in spite of everything, she remained a woman of faith.
‘I want to be with them now.’ His voice broke, and he paused to put it back together. ‘I’m finished here, but I don’t have the guts to move on.’
‘Don’t talk like that, Joe.’
He didn’t have the courage to end his life, because he had no convictions about what came after this world. He did not truly believe that he would find his wife and daughters again in a realm of light and loving spirits. Lately, when he gazed at a night sky, he Saw only distant stuns in a meaningless void, but he couldn’t bear to voice his doubt, because to do so would be to imply that Michelle’s and the girls’ lives had been meaningless as well.
Beth said, ‘We’re all here for a purpose.’
'They were my purpose. They’re gone.’
'then there’s another purpose you’re meant for. It’s your job now to find it. There’s a reason you’re still here.’
‘No reason,’ he disagreed. ‘Tell me about the sky, Beth.’
After a hesitation, she said, ‘The clouds to the east aren’t gilded any more. The pink is gone too. They’re white clouds, no rain in them, and not dense but like a filigree against the blue.’
He listened to her describe the morning at the other end of the continent. Then they talked about fireflies, which she and Henry had enjoyed watching from their back porch the previous night. Southern California had no fireflies, but Joe remembered them from his boyhood in Pennsylvania. They talked about Henry’s garden, too, in which strawberries were ripening, and in time Joe grew sleepy.
Beth’s last words to him were: ‘It’s full daylight here now. Morning’s going past us and heading your way, Joey. You give it a chance, morning’s going to bring you the reason you need, some purpose, because that’s what the morning does.’
After he hung up, Joe lay on his side, staring at the window, from which the silvery lunar light had faded. The moon had set. He was in the blackest depths of the night.
When he returned to sleep, he dreamed not of any glorious approaching purpose but of an unseen, indefinable, looming menace. Like a great weight falling through the sky above him.
Later Saturday morning, driving to Santa Monica, Joe Carpenter suffered an anxiety attack. His chest tightened, and he was able to draw breath only with effort. When he lifted one hand from the wheel, his fingers quivered like those of a palsied old man.
He was overcome by a sense of falling, as from a great height, as though his Honda had driven off the freeway into an inexplicable and bottomless abyss. The pavement stretched unbroken ahead of him, and the tyres sang against the blacktop, but he could not reason himself back to a perception of stability.
Indeed, the plummeting sensation grew so severe and terrifying that he took his foot off the accelerator and tapped the brake pedal.
Horns blared and skidding tyres squealed as traffic adjusted to his sudden deceleration. As cars and trucks swept past the Honda, the drivers glared murderously at Joe or mouthed offensive words, or made obscene gestures. This was greater Los Angeles in an age of change, crackling with the energy of doom, yearning for the Apocalypse, where an unintended slight or an inadvertent trespass on someone else’s turf might result in a thermonuclear response.
His sense of falling did not abate. His stomach turned over as if he were aboard a roller coaster, plunging along a precipitous length of track. Although he was alone in the car, he heard the screams of passengers, faint at first and then louder, not the good-humoured shrieks of thrill seekers at an amusement park, but cries of genuine anguish.
As though from a distance, he listened to himself whispering, ‘No, no, no, no.,
A brief gap in traffic allowed him to angle the Honda off the pavement. The shoulder of the freeway was narrow. He stopped as close as possible to the guardrail, over which lush oleander bushes loomed like a great cresting green tide.
He put the car in park but didn’t switch off the engine. Even
though he was sheathed in cold sweat, he needed the chill blasts of air-conditioning to be able to breathe. The pressure on his chest increased. Each stuttering inhalation was a struggle, and each hot exhalation burst from him with an explosive wheeze.
Although the air in the Honda was clear, Joe smelled smoke. He tasted it too: the acrid melange of burning oil, melting plastic, smouldering vinyl, scorched metal.
When he glanced at the dense clusters of leaves and the deep-red flowers of the oleander pressing against the windows on the passenger side, his imagination morphed them into billowing clouds of greasy smoke. The window became a rectangular porthole with rounded corners and thick dual-pane glass.
Joe might have thought he was losing his mind — if he hadn’t suffered similar anxiety attacks during the past year. Although sometimes as much as two weeks passed between episodes, he often endured as many as three in one day, each lasting between ten minutes and half an hour.
He had seen a therapist. The counselling had not helped.
His doctor recommended anti-anxiety medication. He rejected the prescription. He wanted to feel the pain. It was all he had.
Closing his eyes, covering his face with his icy hands, he strove to regain control of himself, but the catastrophe continued to unfold around him. The sense of falling intensified. The smell of smoke thickened. The screams of phantom passengers grew louder.
Everything shook. The floor beneath his feet. The cabin walls. The ceiling. Horrendous rattling and twanging and banging and gong-like clanging accompanied the shaking, shaking, shaking.
'Please,’ he pleaded.
Without opening his eyes, he lowered his hands from his face. They lay fisted at his sides.
After a moment, the small hands of frightened children clutched at his hands, and he held them tightly.
The children were not in the car, of course, but in their seats in the doomed airliner. Joe was flashing back to the crash of Flight 353. For the duration of this seizure, he would be in two places at once: in the real world of the Honda and in the Nationwide Air 747 as it found its way down from the serenity of the stratosphere, through
overcast night sky, into a meadow as unforgiving as iron.
Michelle had been sitting between the kids. Her hands, not Joe’s, were those that Chrissie and Nina gripped in their last long minutes of unimaginable dread.
As the shaking grew worse, the air was filled with projectiles.
Paperback books, laptop computers, pocket calculators, flatware and dishes — because a few passengers had not yet finished dinner when disaster struck — plastic drinking glasses, single-serving bottles of liquor, pencils and pens ricocheted through the cabin.
Coughing because of the smoke, Michelle would have urged the girls to keep their heads down. Heads down. Protect your faces.