Sole Survivor Page 2

Such faces. Beloved faces. Seven-year-old Chrissie had her mother’s high cheekbones and clear green eyes. Joe would never forget the flush of joy that suffused Chrissie’s face when she was taking a ballet lesson, or the squint-eyed concentration with which she approached home plate to take her turn at bat in Little League baseball games. Nina, only four, the pug-nosed munchkin with eyes as blue as sapphires, had a way of crinkling her sweet face in pure delight at the sight of a dog or cat. Animals were drawn to her — and she to them — as though she were the reincarnation of St. Francis of Assisi, which was not a far-fetched idea when one saw her gazing with wonder and love upon even an ugly garden lizard cupped in her small, careful hands.

Heads down. Protect your faces.

In that advice was hope, the implication that they would all survive and that the worst thing that might happen to them would be a face-disfiguring encounter with a hurtling laptop or broken glass.

The fearsome turbulence increased. The angle of descent grew more severe, pinning Joe to his seat, so that he couldn’t easily bend forward and protect his face.

Maybe the oxygen masks dropped from overhead, or maybe damage to the craft had resulted in a systems failure, with the consequence that masks had not been deployed at every seat. He didn’t know if Michelle, Chrissie, and Nina had been able to breathe or if, choking on the billowing soot, they had struggled futilely to find fresh air.

Smoke surged more thickly through the passenger compartment. The cabin became as claustrophobic as any coal mine deep beneath the surface of the earth.

In the blinding blackdamp, unseen sinuosities of fire uncoiled like snakes. The wrenching terror of the aircraft’s uncontrolled descent was equalled by the terror of not knowing where those flames were or when they might flash with greater vigour through the 747.

As the stress on the airliner increased to all but intolerable levels, thunderous vibrations shuddered through the fuselage. The giant wings thrummed as though they would tear loose. The steel frame groaned like a living beast in mortal agony, and perhaps minor welds broke with sounds as loud and sharp as gunshots. A few rivets sheered off, each with a piercing screeeeek.

To Michelle and Chrissie and little Nina, perhaps it seemed that the plane would disintegrate in flight and that they would be cast into the black sky, be spun away from one another, plummeting in their separate seats to three separate deaths, each abjectly alone at the instant of impact.

The huge 747—400, however, was a marvel of design and a triumph of engineering, brilliantly conceived and soundly con­structed. In spite of the mysterious hydraulics failure that rendered the aircraft uncontrollable, the wings did not tear loose, and the fuselage did not disintegrate. Its powerful Pratt and Whitney engines screaming as if in defiance of gravity, Nationwide Flight 353 held together throughout its final descent.

At some point Michelle would have realized that all hope was lost, that they were in a dying plunge. With characteristic courage and selflessness, she would have thought only of the children then, would have concentrated on comforting them, distracting them as much as possible from thoughts of death. No doubt she leaned toward Nina, pulled her close, and in spite of the breath-stealing fumes, spoke into the girl’s ear to be heard above the clamour: it’s okay, baby, we’re together, I love you, hold on to Mommy, I love you, you’re the best little girl who ever was. Shaking down, down, down through the Colorado night, her voice full of emotion but devoid of panic she had surely sought out Chrissie too: it’s all right, I’m with you, honey, hold my hand, I love you so much, I’m so very proud of you, we’re together, it’s all right, we’ll always be together.

In the Honda alongside the freeway, Joe could hear Michelle’s voice almost as if from memory, as though he had been with her as she had comforted the children. He wanted desperately to believe that his daughters had been able to draw upon the strength of the exceptional woman who had been their mother. He needed to know that the last thing the girls heard in this world was Michelle telling them how very precious they were, how cherished.

The airliner met the meadow with such devastating impact that the sound was heard more than twenty miles away in the rural Colorado vastness, stirring hawks and owls and eagles out of trees and into flight, startling weary ranchers from their armchairs and early beds.

In the Honda, Joe Carpenter let out a muffled cry. He doubled over as if he had been struck hard in the chest.

The crash was catastrophic. Flight 353 exploded on impact and tumbled across the meadow, disintegrating into thousands of scorched and twisted fragments, spewing orange gouts of burn­ing jet fuel that set fire to evergreens at the edge of the field. Three hundred and thirty people, including passengers and crew, perished instantly.

Michelle, who had taught Joe Carpenter most of what he knew about love and compassion, was snuffed out in that merciless moment. Chrissie, seven-year-old ballerina and baseball player, would never again pirouette on point or run the bases. And if animals felt the same psychic connection with Nina that she felt with them, then in that chilly Colorado night, the meadows and the wooded hills had been filled with small creatures that cowered miserably in their burrows.

Of his family, Joe Carpenter was the sole survivor.

He had not been with them on Flight 353. Every soul aboard had been hammered into ruin against the anvil of the earth. If he had been with them, then he too would have been identifiable only by his dental records and a printable finger or two.

His flashbacks to the crash were not memories but exhausting fevers of imagination, frequently expressed in dreams and some­times in anxiety attacks like this one. Racked by guilt because he had not perished with his wife and daughters, Joe tortured himself with these attempts to share the horror that they must have experienced.

Inevitably, his imaginary journeys on the earthbound airplane failed to bring him the healing acceptance for which he longed. Instead, each nightmare and each waking seizure salted his wounds.

He opened his eyes and stared at the traffic speeding past him. If he chose the right moment, he could open the door, step out of the car, walk onto the freeway, and be struck dead by a truck.

He remained safely in the Honda, not because he was afraid to die, but for reasons unclear even to him. Perhaps, for the time being at least, he felt the need to punish himself with more life.

Against the passenger-side windows, the overgrown oleander bushes stirred ceaselessly in the wind from the passing traffic. The friction of the greenery against the glass raised an eerie whispering like lost and forlorn voices.

He was not shaking any more.

The sweat on his face began to dry in the cold air gushing from the dashboard vents.

He was no longer plagued by a sensation of falling. He had reached bottom.

Through the August heat and a thin haze of smog, passing cars and trucks shimmered like mirages, trembling westward toward cleaner air and the cooling sea. Joe waited for a break in traffic and then headed once more for the edge of the continent.


The sand was bone white in the glare of the August sun. Cool and green and rolling came the sea, scattering the tiny shells of dead and dying creatures on the strand.

The beach at Santa Monica was crowded with people tanning, playing games, and eating picnic lunches on blankets and big towels. Although the day was a scorcher farther inland, here it was merely pleasantly warm, with a breeze coming off the Pacific.

A few sunbathers glanced curiously at Joe as he walked north through the coconut-oiled throng, because he was not dressed for the beach. He wore a white T-shirt, tan chinos, and running shoes without socks. He had not come to swim or sunbathe.

As lifeguards watched the swimmers, strolling young women in bikinis watched the lifeguards. Their rhythmic rituals distracted them entirely from the architects of shells cast on the foaming shore near their feet.

Children played in the surf, but Joe could not bear to watch them. Their laughter, shouts, and squeals of delight abraded his nerves and sparked in him an irrational anger.

Carrying a Styrofoam cooler and a towel, he continued north, gazing at the seared hills of Malibu beyond the curve of Santa Monica Bay. At last he found a less populated stretch of sand. He unrolled the towel, sat facing the sea, and took a bottle of beer from its bed of ice in the cooler.

If ocean-view property had been within his means, he would have finished out his life at the water’s edge. The ceaseless susur­ration of surf, the sun-gilded and moon-silvered relentlessness of incoming breakers, and the smooth liquid curve to the far horizon brought him not any sense of peace, not serenity, but a welcome numbness.

The rhythms of the sea were all he ever expected to know of eternity and of God.

if he drank a few beers and let the therapeutic vistas of the Pacific wash through him, he might then be calm enough to go to the cemetery. To stand upon the earth that blanketed his wife and his daughters. To touch the stone that bore their names.

This day, of all days, he had an obligation to the dead. Two teenage boys, improbably thin, wearing baggy swim trunks slung low on their narrow hips, ambled along the beach from the north and stopped near Joe’s towel. One wore his long hair in a ponytail, the other in a buzz cut. Both were deeply browned by the sun. They turned to gaze at the ocean, their backs to him, blocking his view.

As Joe was about to ask them to move out of his way, the kid with the ponytail said, ‘You holding anything, man?’

Joe didn’t answer because he thought, at first, that the boy was talking to his buzz-cut friend.

‘You holding anything?’ the kid asked again, still staring at the ocean. ‘Looking to make a score or move some merchandise?’

‘I’ve got nothing but beer,’ Joe said impatiently, tipping up his sunglasses to get a better look at them, ‘and it’s not for sale.’

‘Well,’ said the kid with the buzz cut, ‘if you ain’t a candy store, there’s a couple guys watching sure think you are.’


‘Don’t look now,’ said the boy with the ponytail. ‘Wait till we get some distance. We been watching them watch you. They stink of cop so bad, I’m surprised you can’t smell ‘em.’

The other said, ‘Fifty feet south, near the lifeguard tower. Two dinks in Hawaiian shirts, look like preachers on vacation.’

‘One’s got binoculars. One’s got a walkie-talkie.’ Bewildered, Joe lowered his sunglasses and said, ‘Thanks.’ ‘Hey,’ said the boy with the ponytail, ‘just doing the friendly thing, man. We hate those self-righteous as**oles.’

With nihilistic bitterness that sounded absurd coming from anyone so young, the kid with the buzz cut said, ‘Screw the system.’

As arrogant as young male tigers, the boys continued south along the beach, checking out the girls. Joe had never gotten a good look at their faces.

A few minutes later, when he finished his first beer, he turned, opened the lid of the cooler, put away the empty can, and looked nonchalantly back along the sward. Two men in Hawaiian shirts were standing in the shadow of the lifeguard tower.

The taller of the two, in a predominantly green shirt and white cotton slacks, was studying Joe through a pair of binoculars. Alert to the possibility that he’d been spotted, he calmly turned with the binoculars to the south, as if interested not in Joe but in a group of bikini-clad teenagers.

The shorter man wore a shirt that was mostly red and orange. His tan slacks were rolled at the cuffs. He was barefoot in the sand, holding his shoes and socks in his left hand.

In his right hand, held down at his side, was another object, which might be a small radio or a CD player. It might also be a walkie-talkie.

The tall guy was cancerously tanned, with sun-bleached blond hair, but the smaller man was pale, a stranger to beaches.

Popping the tab on another beer and inhaling the fragrant foamy mist that sprayed from the can, Joe turned to the sea once more.

Although neither of the men looked as if he’d left home this morning with the intention of going to the shore, they appeared no more out of place than Joe did. The kids had said that the watchers stank of cop, but even though he’d been a crime reporter for fourteen years, Joe couldn’t catch the scent.

Anyway, there was no reason for the police to be interested in him. With the murder rate soaring, rape almost as common as romance, and robbery so prevalent that half the populace seemed to be stealing from the other half, the cops would not waste time harassing him for drinking an alcoholic beverage on a public beach.

High on silent pinions, shining white, three sea gulls flew northward from the distant pier, at first paralleling the shoreline. Then they soared over the shimmering bay and wheeled across the sky.

Eventually Joe glanced back toward the lifeguard tower. The two men were no longer there.

He faced the sea again.

Incoming breakers broke, spilling shatters of foam on the sand. He watched the waves as a willing subject might watch a hypno­tist’s pendant swinging on a silver chain.

This time, however, the tides did not mesmerize, and he was unable to guide his troubled mind into calmer currents. Like the effect of a planet on its moon, the calendar pulled Joe into its orbit, and he couldn’t stop his thoughts from revolving around the date:

August 15, August 15, August 15. This first anniversary of the crash had an overwhelming gravity that crushed him down into memories of his loss.

When the remains of his wife and children had been conveyed

to him, after the investigation of the crash and the meticulous cataloguing of both the organic and inorganic debris, Joe was given only fragments of their bodies. The sealed caskets were the size usually reserved for the burial of infants. He received them as if he were taking possession of the sacred bones of saints nestled in reliquaries.

Although he understood the devastating effects of the airliner’s impact, and though he knew that an unsparing fire had flashed through the debris, how strange it had seemed to Joe that Michelle’s and the girls’ physical remains should be so small. They had been such enormous presences in his life.

Without them, the world seemed to be an alien place. He didn’t feel as if he belonged here until he was at least two hours out of bed. Some days the planet turned twenty-four hours without rotating Joe into an accommodation with life. Clearly this was one of them.

After he finished the second Coors, he put the empty can in the cooler. He wasn’t ready to drive to the cemetery yet, but he needed to visit the nearest public restroom.

Joe rose to his feet, turned, and glimpsed the tall blond guy in the green Hawaiian shirt. The man, without binoculars for the moment, was not south near the lifeguard tower but north, about sixty feet away, sitting alone in the sand. To screen himself from Joe, he had taken a position beyond two young couples on blankets and a Mexican family that had staked their territory with folding chairs and two big yellow-striped beach umbrellas.

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