Walker Papers, Book 1
This book is for my grandfather,
Francis John Joseph McNally Malone,
who would have been proud of me.
I hardly know where to begin saying thank-you. Starting at the end and working my way backward seems appropriate.
First: my editor, Mary-Theresa Hussey, for taking a chance on a brand-new author; my agent, Jennifer Jackson, for her enthusiasm; and cover artist Hugh Syme, whose work I’m delighted to have my book judged by.
Second: Trip, for pointing out the glaring error in the rough draft and thereby making this a
Third: my family, who never once doubted they’d be holding one of my books in their hands one day…
And most of all, Ted, who looked out the airplane window in the first place.
There’s nothing worse than a red-eye flight.
Well, all right, that’s wildly untrue. There are lots of things worse than red-eye flights. There are starving children in Africa, hate crimes and Austin Powers’s teeth. That’s just off the top of my head.
But I was crammed into an airplane seat that wouldn’t comfortably hold a four-year-old child, and had been for so many hours I was no longer certain what species I belonged to. I hadn’t slept in over a day. I was convinced that if someone didn’t stay awake, the airplane would fall out of the sky, and I couldn’t trust anyone else to do the job.
My stomach was alternating between nausea from the airline meal I’d eaten hours earlier, and hunger from not eating another revolting meal more recently. I’d forgotten to take my contact lens case with me in my carry-on, and my eyes were burning. My spine was so bent out of shape I’d have to visit a chiropractor for a week to stand up straight again. I was flying back from a funeral to be fired.
Overall, starving children in Africa were taking a distant second to my own misery and discomfort. Shallow, but true.
A very small part of my mind was convinced that if the flight attendants would just let me into the unpressurized luggage compartment to find my contact case, everything would miraculously be right with the world. None of them would let me, so my contacts were welded to my eyes. Every several minutes I decided it wasn’t worth it and started to take them out. Every time, I remembered that they were my last pair and I’d have to suffer with glasses until I made an eye appointment.
I might have succumbed, but the glasses in question were also with my luggage. The idea of navigating a soft-focus world full of featureless faces gave me a headache.
Not that I didn’t have one anyway.
I climbed over the round man sleeping peacefully beside me and went to the bathroom. At least I could take the contacts out and stew them in tap water for a few minutes. Anything would be better than keeping them in my eyes.
Anything except my reflection. Have you ever noticed that the mirror is by far the largest object in those tiny airplane rest-rooms? I was a sick pasty color under the flickering florescent light, my eyes much too green against a network of bloodshot vessels. I looked like a walking advertisement for one of those “wow” eyedrop commercials. Second runner-up for Least Attractive Feature on an International Flight was my hair. I put my contacts in two little paper cups and set them ostentatiously on the appropriate sides of the sink, then rubbed water through my hair to give it some life again.
Now I looked like a bloodshot porcupine. Big improvement.
The only thing on my person that didn’t look slimy was the brand-new silver choker necklace my mother’d given me just before she died. A Celtic cross pendant sat in the hollow of my throat. I wasn’t used to jewelry, and now that I’d been reminded it was there, it felt mildly horrible, like someone was gently pushing his thumb against the delicate flesh. I shuddered and put my contacts back in before weaving my way back down the aisles to my seat. The flight attendants avoided me. I couldn’t blame them.
I rested my forehead on a grease spot I’d left on the window earlier. The airlines, I thought, must have custodians who clean the windows, or there’d be an inches-thick layer of goo on them from people like me.
That thought was proof positive that I shouldn’t be allowed to stay up for more than eighteen hours at a time. I have a bad habit of following every thought to its miserable, pathetic little end when I’m tired. I don’t mean to. It’s just that my brain and my tongue get unhinged. Though some of my less charitable acquaintances would say this condition didn’t require sleep deprivation.
The plane had been descending for a while now, and I squinted at my heavy black wristwatch. The bright orange button for changing the time had become permanently depressed in Moscow, or maybe Venice. Probably Moscow; I’d found Moscow depressing, and saw no reason why the watch shouldn’t. It claimed it was 5:50 p.m. which meant it was almost seven in the morning. I frowned out the window, trying to find the horizon. The sky wasn’t turning gray yet, not flying into Seattle three days after New Year’s. I blinked at the darkness, trying to unglue my contacts again.
My eyes teared up and I spent a few minutes with my hands over them, hoping perversely that I didn’t blink the contacts out. By the time I could see again, the captain had announced the final descent into Seattle. Couldn’t they find a less ominous phrase for it? I don’t like flying as it is, even without the implication that before landing I might want to have all my worldly and spiritual affairs in order. I pressed my head against the window so I could see the ground when it came into view. Maybe I could convince it to let us land without it being our real final descent.
Or maybe not. The plane banked abruptly and began to climb again. A moment or two later the captain’s voice crackled over the intercom.
“Sorry about that, folks. Little disagreement over who got to land next. We’re going to take another spin around the Emerald City and then we’ll have you at the gate right on time.”
Why do airline pilots always call passengers “folks” ? I don’t usually take umbrage at generic terminology— I’m one of those forward-thinkers who believes that “man” encompasses the whole darned race—but at whatever o’clock in the morning, I thought it would be nice to be called something that suggested unwashed masses a little less. Ladies and gentlemen, for example. Nevermind that, being an almost six-foot-tall mechanic, I had a hard time passing for a lady on a good day, which this wasn’t.
I watched lights slip away beneath us as we circled. If I have to fly, I like flying into cities in the dark of morning. There’s something reassuring and likable about the purposeful skim of vehicles, zooming along to their destinations. The whisk of cars meant that the people driving them had a goal, somewhere to be, something to do. That was a hell of a lot more than I had.
I stared down at the moving lights. Maybe I didn’t like them after all.