Appeared in the March 2008 issue of Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine
“We’re not going to make it.”
“We’ll make it.”
Frank says this kind of thing, because Frank always makes it. Frank makes things happen. He doesn’t have to get places on time, hustle for jobs, work at things the way I have to. He’s Frank. The world bends to accommodate him.
“I told you to get me up.” I hear the words leave my mouth and I know already how childish they sound.
“I set the alarm.”
“It’s not enough. I can’t get up with just the alarm. You have to wake me,” I tell him, certain I’ve said it a thousand times before.
We’re only twenty minutes from the airport, if you take the highway. Twenty minutes, maybe less, because it’s four a.m. in the morning, and no one else is on the road. But we don’t have twenty minutes. Not the way security is now.
“You know I don’t like to do that. If you want to get up, you’ll get up,” Frank tells me. And that’s true, for him. If Frank wants to be awake, he breaks from the confines of our bed and strides into the day, alert, adroit, refreshed, while I struggle toward consciousness from beneath an engulfing wave of sleep, tangled in sheets like seaweed, drowning in the cool dark.
“You’ve missed the ramp.” I see it flash past us, and watch it recede into the distance, like my chances of catching this plane, landing this job. And then it’s gone.
“We’ll make it. There’s an access road up here that runs straight across the meadow. It’s got to cut the trip in half.” He says this with such confidence that I believe him, until we turn, smooth asphalt sailing into waves of chop gravel.
There’s a gate barring the road. Our headlights slice across it and reveal the opening to be wide enough for a car to fit through.
“It’s not even paved,” I point out.
“It is – ahead,” Frank insists.
“Have you ever come this way before? Do you even know where this leads?”
“I’ve always meant to try it.”
The road smoothes out and we’re floating again over placid, unblemished tarmac.
“This isn’t the time for an experiment.” I want this to be Frank’s fault, even though I know it isn’t. “I’ll miss my plane.”
Once, when it was my birthday, Frank ordered me a chocolate cake from the bakery down the street. When we went to pick it up, the baker had lost Frank’s order. He hadn’t made a chocolate cake.
Check again, Frank told him. Check in the back.
I didn’t make any chocolate cakes.
It’s okay, I told Frank. It didn’t have to be chocolate.
Your cake is chocolate, Frank had insisted.
The baker returned a moment later with a chocolate cake. The world works like that for Frank.
“If you miss it, then it wasn’t your plane,” Frank says, simple as that, but I can tell by the way he scans the road that for once he isn’t certain.
We’re driving across a meadow, or a swamp, it’s difficult to tell which in the light, the terrain rising on either side of us into flanking dunes, forming like clay beneath a child’s hands. It looks just like all the land surrounding every airport. It’s scrubby, undeveloped, empty, with a constant nimbus of yellow light just on the horizon indicating the vast expanse of the runways. Useless land that no one travels, no one lives on.
We’re going east, or must be, because the airport is east. And the sky should be lightening with the dawn, but it isn’t. I turn in my seat, to see the sulfur-yellow glow of the highway disappear. Ahead we’re traveling into blue gloom, into night, which is just plain wrong.
“We’re going the wrong way. It should be getting lighter, not darker. We should be heading east to the airport, into the sunrise.”
“The road probably twists and jogs around the runways.”
For the first time since I have known him, Frank does not have the answer.
Suddenly we’re traveling up hill, and we emerge from between the scrubby dunes into something else entirely.
It’s nothing like an access road to an airport: too manicured, landscaped, terraced, to be anyplace near the airport. High, fine curbs border perfect rolling grass hills dotted with street lamps, their pendant globes bright white in the blue gloom.
“This can’t be between our house and the airport. We must be going the wrong way.”
“We can’t be driving away from the airport.” Frank is confident, assured. “We’d have crossed back over the highway, and we haven’t.”
His reasoning is faultless, but nothing feels right. The blue light outside has drenched the car, inside and out, tinting every surface a shade of blue. My hands, cyanotic; my pants, my bag, all blue. The manicured rolling lawns stretching as far as the eye can see are blue as well; a world floored with sky.
And it’s getting cold.
Overhead are highway signs, blank white staring slabs mounted on steel posts.
“The signs are blank. Let’s turn around. Let’s go back.” My voice sounds shrill, and far away.
“This must be a new development.”
It’s an excellent explanation, but wrong.
“Then there wouldn’t be signs at all. No one hangs blank signs.”
“We’ll never make it on time if we turn back.” Frank pats my knee, but I can’t feel the warmth of his hand. “We’ve made a decision, and now we’re committed to it. We’ll keep following the road and we’ll hit the airport.”
That’s when it starts snowing. I try to think of a late April snow shower in recent memory, but can’t. The lawns now appear frosted, and the trees are spangled with pale blue ice. I close my eyes because I don’t want to see anymore. I’m convinced we’ve driven out of the real world and into someplace else.
I’m jolted awake when the car stops moving. I expect to open my eyes to the concrete ramps and car exhaust of the departing flights level, but the world is still blue, still icy crisp and oddly new.
“Why have we stopped?”
“To ask directions.”
The road ahead is forked and the white staring signs are silent above.
Frank rolls my window down, and I see him. There is a man standing on the grass. He looks lost. White-blond hair, tinted cobalt by the strange dawn-light, frames a sharp nose and vacant anthracite eyes.
He’s dressed for the wrong climate: short pants and t-shirt with thick-soled canvas shoes, all dyed blue by the light. He’s carrying a skateboard in his hand, hanging low at his side.
“Which road to the airport?” Frank calls out.
“Just drive,” I say it quietly.
The man on the grass looks up at the white signs, and back down to us.
“Please drive. There’s something wrong here.” I start sliding my window up, but Frank slides it back down.
The man begins to cross the lawn, slow, dreamlike, the skateboard dragging a furrow in the frozen grass.
When he reaches the car he collapses like a released marionette to crouch at my window, all stiffness gone from his frame. There’s frost on his eyelashes. He looks like a frozen corpse, but when he speaks his voice is bathetic, full of the round stoner vowels of the west coast, languid, helpful, mundane.
“Take the left fork, dude, to the airport. That way.” He points.
Frank thanks him. We drive away. I look back and he is still crouched at the curb. I catch a glimpse of that curb in the mirror, and he is gone, just as the dim blue world erupts into pink and yellow light. My ears pop, as though we’ve changed altitude, and everything sounds louder and clearer. Ahead is the road, the airport.
Gravel spins once more under our tires before we make contact with the surface of the main road. We shoot past ramps and terminals and are inside, breathless at the check-in before I can find my wallet, identification, tickets.
Most of the counters are still closed. The tiny, sleepy, airlines don’t fly this early. There’s a sealed-off silence in here, a world apart from the windy ramps outside. We’re long past my boarding time, but there’s a chance that the plane hasn’t left.
Even for the hour, though, my counter is unusually subdued. Frank has gone to park while I make my mad-dash for the gate, nursing hope though it feels likely my journey will end here, at the check-in counter. The ticket agents talk in whispers, examine my identification over and over, huddle to confer in low tones I can’t make out.
I interrupt their conference. “If I’ve missed my flight, can you put me on another? Maybe with another airline? I’ve got an interview.”
The ticket agent who breaks away from the group to speak with me has a funereal air about her. I’m not going to make it to this interview.
“I’m sorry,” she tells me, “but there’s been an accident on the runway. With your plane. It happened about fifteen minutes ago, during take-off. We don’t know when the next flights will be cleared.”
“What kind of accident?’ I ask, but I’ve already guessed the answer.
There’s a light, empty space in my stomach, spreading up through my body. Fifteen minutes ago, when Frank was driving me endlessly through a twilight landscape, somewhere between our home and the airport. Somewhere I don’t think I could find again.
The doors behind me hiss open and I know without turning that it’s Frank.
“Would you like us to call you when we know something?”
I thank them and follow Frank back out to the car. He says nothing as we drive. We take the highway this time, and though I search, I do not see the entrance to the service road we traveled.
It occurs to me as the car speeds along, that there is no service road cutting across the meadows. The world bends to accommodate Frank. He wanted a shortcut to the airport, just like he wanted a chocolate cake for my birthday, and one appeared. He bent the world around him.
Later, at home during the long morning, I feel like an unexpected guest in Frank’s planned, solitary day. In the afternoon I begin to wonder if Frank really did make the long undulating road through the blue hills, or if, for the first time in a life of certainty, he found himself lost. I begin to wonder if he created not the meandering shortcut through the meadow, but the steep descent and fiery destination of the plane I would have, should have boarded.