We are halfway through the Ray Bradbury Challenge of writing a short story each week for a year. After several attempts, this is the farthest I have ever gotten. But this has been a bit of a weird week, so instead of posting something semi-polished, I am posting the dirty first draft. I plan to go ahead and edit and maybe post the revision in the comments sometime next week. Because 95% of writing is revising, right?
Someone in Witness Protection
First airplane flight
A pocket calendar
My father used to tell a story about his first time on an airplane. He was flying to South Korea as an Army Private in the 50s, and sitting next to him was a member of an airborne division.
As they began to enter the final descent, the airborne guy turned a ghostly white, his hands gripped the armrests, and he started to gulp air rapidly.
My father turned to him and asked, “Hey, you jump out of perfectly good aircraft all the time, and now you are panicking. Is there something I should know?”
The guy, in between gasps, said, “I have no problem parachuting. But I have never landed in a plane before.”
It was a funny story when I was five. But now I was 15, and there were some takeaways I needed to consider on my first flight. Namely, there are two kinds of people. And one kind jumps out of perfectly good aircraft. Standing in line behind my mother at the boarding gate for my first airplane flight, I vowed I would not be that kind. I gripped the strap of my backpack and watched my knuckles lose their color. People flew all the time, right? It was perfectly safe, right – except for the hijackers on the news last night. But they only wanted flights to New York and London. Who would want to hijack a flight from Newark, New Jersey, to Austin, Texas?
Mom handed the boarding agent our tickets, and I followed her onto the plane. It wasn’t one of the giant ones in the movies, but it was big enough. We squeezed by several people in the aisle and found our seats. Mom pointed to the seat next to the window, and I gratefully took it. He sat in the middle seat, and I was glad I could feel the warmth of her leg against mine.
A man stood at our row and put a briefcase in the overhead storage. He slammed it shut and then sat down next to Mom. He held his hand to her, “Hi, Bob Santori.”
Mom shook his hand. From the Marshall’s?”
He nodded. Yes, I am going to get you settled in Austin.”
I studied him. He didn’t look as clean-cut as the Marshalls we met in New York, but maybe he was from Texas, and the Marshalls out of the city were a bit more relaxed. His hair was slicked back, and he wore a gray suit jacket, but it was made of leather.
I still wasn’t a fan of the idea of leaving my entire life and starting fresh in a strange place. And it was a bit odd that he said we would be in Austin, as the Marshall’s office said we would be living in a small town called Bastrop. But I was just a kid. Why would they tell me their plans? Mom was chatting with the guy, so I leaned my head on the window and stared at the clouds.
Of all the names in the world, I am not sure why I chose my new name to be Clara. Maybe because it was so different from Jacqueline, but now I had second thoughts. leaned over to Mom and whispered, “Are you sure I can’t pick a different name?”
Before Mom could answer, Bob leaned over her to me, “Of course you can, Jacqueline, whatever you decide.”
Mom’s body stiffened a bit. Before we left, the marshalls had told us under no circumstances were we to use our old names. Those people were gone, they told us. And now here was one of them using my real name. I was not a fan of their communication at that moment.
But as the plane settled into its cruising altitude, the exhaustion I had been fighting started to win. I closed my eyes, hoping to sleep without the nightmare for a change. It was the same bad dream every time. You would think it would be the fact that I saw a man kill my father, ten feet away from me, in the parking lot of the A&P. That would be a nightmare for most people. But the real nightmare was the trial. Sitting in the box, trying to explain what I saw, while the murderer stared at me, his cold, empty eyes boring straight into my soul. The men in the back of the courtroom, also staring at me, at mom. Memorizing what I looked like. Because a haircut and glasses do not change your looks that much, whatever Superman and Wonder Woman teach us on television. I wished Superman and Wonder Woman were real and that they were protecting me rather than greasy-haired Bob.
Mom poked me. Wake up, we’re landing.”
I sat up and stretched as much as I could. The plane was sinking through the clouds, and I was starting to see the land of my new home. And it was flat. My stomach lurched as the plane dropped, and I was a bit glad I hadn’t had anything to eat yet today. There was a jolt as the plane hit the ground, and then my body strained against the seat belt as the brakes slowed us down. Instructions crackled over the PA system, but I let Mom listen to them. I just looked out the window. There were other planes out on the tarmac, so it looked like the airport we had just left in many ways.
“In a few minutes, our new life starts,” Mom whispered. “Bob is going to take us to the Marshalls’ office and then to our new house.” The enthusiasm in her voice did not match the sadness in her eyes. No matter what was new, Dad wasn’t here with us. So this would be a sorry second place life, no matter where we lived.
Bob stood up, “Come on, we need to get off before everyone else.” He got his briefcase out of the storage bin, put it on the seat, and opened it. All around us, people were standing and getting their belongings together. I don’t even think Mom noticed Bob getting a gun out of his briefcase and sliding it into the inner pocket of his leather suit coat. But he was a marshall, right? I guess they are supposed to be armed to protect us. He whispered something to Mom, and she put her hand in the crook of his elbow as if they were a couple instead of a widow and her security person. I liked Bob less and less.
We were the first off the plane and walked through a bouncy walkway to the main airport. I could see people holding signs to welcome their families. It hit me that no one would be there to welcome us.
I was wrong.
It was all so fast.
Someone yelled “FREEZE! FBI!” and hands came out of nowhere to pull me away from mom and behind a counter. A man was there with me, he had his gun out. He wore a black windbreaker with giant letters, FBI, across the chest. Crouched next to me, he peeked around the counter.
“What’s happening?” I asked.
He didn’t look at me, “The US Marshall that was supposed to escort you and your mother was found dead in his bathroom this morning.”
I tried to process this. But Bob…”
“He’s probably the one who did it.”
“Where’s my mom?” She was with Bob, she had her arm on his. What if Bob hurt her? What would happen to me now?
“I’m sorry kid, but we just arrested her with him.” The agent stood up, looked around, and then offered me a hand to help me up.
“She was an accomplice. To the murder of the Marshall.” He sighed. And your dad.”