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Book One

Flight 888 departed Boston at 11:07 on the night of June sixth. Almost fifteen minutes passed in silence before the first passenger’s brain turned to liquid.

     The plane was scheduled to land in Los Angeles at 2:30 a.m. Pacific Standard, for a total flight time of six and a half hours, though this itinerary was taken with a grain of salt by most passengers. Quantum Airlines had become infamous for their inability to calculate flight time or even to depart within a two-hour window, resulting in a number of lawsuits and a permanently damaged reputation.

     Though Quantum numbered among America’s least-reputable airlines, the night of June sixth saw an incredible swell in traffic. At ten p.m, a record number of passengers boarded the immense Boeing 777, most of them understanding that the deep price cuts and discounts they’d been offered were part of some complicated, unknowable moneymaking scheme. Only one of them understood the real reason behind Quantum’s cheap tickets, and none of them knew the consequences they would face for accepting the offer.

     The first death occurred at 11:20 p.m.

     Neil was fifty-two years old, and all he wanted was to die.

     At ten-thirty, he had stepped onto the LA-bound Boeing and found his seat. He didn’t want to be here – he didn’t want to end up in California – but as long as he could escape the Northeast he would be grateful. For the first time in sixteen years, he was leaving New England; for the first time in his life, he was leaving New England for good.

     Now, Neil sat quietly at his Economy Plus window seat, the battered copy of Gulliver’s Travels resting on his knee. How many years had he held onto that book? How long had its weathered jacket stared up at him, inviting him to turn the pages and read through the story he had almost memorized? Through his teaching years, Gulliver had become almost like a symbol of his success, both present and future. Then, when everything had come crashing down…

     Neil grimaced, his gray eyebrows coming together. Forcing his hands to stay where they were, to ignore the ancient text begging him to pry open its cover, he turned to stare out the window. Tonight, the moon was almost totally invisible, nothing more than a sliver hanging in the sky like the sickle Zeus had used to slay his own father. The lights and shapes of Logan International Airport weren’t unfamiliar to Neil, but they were entirely uninteresting.

     Finally, Neil gave into temptation and opened the book.

     My father had a small Estate in Nottinghamshire: I was the Third of five Sons. He sent me to Emanuel-College in Cambridge at Fourteen Years old, where I resided three Years, and applied my self close to my Studies: But the Charge of maintaining me (although I had a very scanty Allowance) being too great for a narrow Fortune, I was bound Apprentice to Mr. James Bates, an eminent Surgeon in London, with whom I continued four Years;

     He knew the opening paragraph by heart, and not from actively trying to memorize it. He loved the passage, loved the entire book. He couldn’t say why, exactly, but he suspected that he loved it because it had always been there for him. Gulliver had been there when Neil’s own family deserted him. Gulliver had gotten him through the last few days of despondent misery, and, before that, the fifteen years of hopeless solitude.

     After a while, Neil realized that two passengers had sat down next him: a young black woman and a middle-aged white man. He considered growling at them, telling them to find different seats, but a quick glance around the cabin told him that wouldn’t be possible. Neil remembered the deeply discounted tickets he’d been offered, seemingly out of the blue, and connected the dots somewhere in the back of his mind: Quantum had never been the most respected travel company, and their higher-ups must have thought it was a good idea to nearly bankrupt themselves with special offers.

     How many of his fellow passengers had a reason to be here, he wondered, other than accepting a good deal just because it was offered? Did any of them even want to go to Los Angeles?

     He pushed these thoughts away, reminding himself that he had less of a reason to be in LA than he had to be in Boston, or even back in Maine. In fact, he didn’t have any real destination, or any direction at all. Neither did he have any interest. In anything. Anymore.

     At one point, the senior flight attendant began to speak. Neil ignored her. He didn’t really care if he could locate the oxygen masks and PFDs – in fact, an emergency that required the use of a life-saving device didn’t seem like a bad idea. The deal had been that he wouldn’t purposefully kill himself. Nobody said he had to save his own life, if it came to that.

     Eventually, the old woman in the bubblegum-pink uniform disappeared through the door that separated Economy Plus and Business. A few minutes later, Quantum Flight 888 left the runway.

     As the Boeing took off into the night sky, Neil pulled aside the cuff of his tweed jacket, revealing an ancient analogue watch. The hands read somewhere around 11:10. His eyes weren’t what they used to be, and he usually had to round up.

     Gulliver’s Travels, still resting on his knee, seemed to grow heavier as the plane mounted into the atmosphere. It needed to be read. It wanted to be read. But he wouldn’t give in, not again. He had relied too often on the book, for comfort. For guidance. Not for moral support, no, the time for that was long gone. He had spent the last fifteen years trying to ignore the idiots who thought they could cure his misery by spitting pathetic platitudes into his ears. As if words could change the past.

     As if cheerful thoughts could bring back the dead.

     A whisper cut through the silence of the stuffed cabin, and Neil looked up. Not in surprise, or interest – just as a reaction of instinct.

     Two figures were making their way aft down the left-hand aisle, and Neil – sitting at a far-right window – had to crane his neck to see them.

     One of them was a young man with light blond hair, whose age Neil couldn’t quite make out. Somewhere between fifteen and twenty-five, he thought, unable to narrow the gap any further. Neil thought he looked vaguely familiar, and tried to place who from his old life the boy reminded him of.

     The blonde’s companion was a young woman, probably in her mid-to-late-thirties, with brown hair and a white coat. Depending on the young man’s age, she could have been his sister, his girlfriend…perhaps even his mother, if she was considerably older than she looked.

     Wouldn’t she be around…Maryanne’s age? whispered something in the back of his mind.

     “Shut up,” Neil hissed, turning back to face the seat in front of him, ignoring a confused frown from the woman to his left.

     Neil leaned back and closed his eyes, the book held in his lap. He didn’t know what he was doing here, but he figured he might as well enjoy the two things that still held any sort of pleasure for him: sleep and alcohol. The latter would be provided once the plane was at cruising altitude.

     The pilot’s voice came over the intercom and spoke a few introductory words. He welcomed the passengers to his flight, thanked them for choosing Quantum Airlines…as if any of them would be here without the deep discounts they’d been offered.

     Not that he was judging his fellow passengers for their frugal decision. Even if he hadn’t taken the same offer, Neil didn’t care enough to judge. More than fifteen years had passed since he last cared about anything at all.

[four days ago]

By the time Neil arrived in Brunswick, the sky had filled with clouds. They weren’t rainclouds, they were white, and the sun was shining through them. Off and on, inconsistently, the area would almost become warm.

     How many days – months – years in his life as a teacher had he spent teaching disinterested adolescents the importance of such-and-such metaphors? After a lifetime of translating all written words into What did the author mean? or What is the purpose of this?, Neil had actually come to think of the real world in these terms, as if everything was dictated by a Higher Being who found pleasure in creating real-life metaphors.

     Thanks to his automatic metaphor deduction, Neil’s mood had gone from sullen to hateful. The warm temperature and glowing clouds seemed like an ontological middle finger directed right at him.

     Neil’s cab sped away, and he stepped towards the cemetery gates. Although he’d been given specific directions, it took him the better part of a half-hour to find Maryanne’s grave, and when he did, he was almost surprised to find that the rectangular stone was no more significant than its neighbors.

Maryanne Henry Poore

June 6th, 1984 — October 23rd, 2002

The stroke of death is as a lover’s pinch, which hurts and is desired.


     He recognized the quote, but he couldn’t place it. Was it Shakespeare? Marlowe?

     It didn’t matter. After sixteen years, they had finally been reunited. He was no longer a young man, and she was no longer alive. He had robbed her of her will to live, and now, fourteen years post-mortem, she had done the same.

     There had been hope, earlier, as recently as that very morning. But seeing this tombstone, seeing her name etched into granite, had evened the playing field between Neil and Maryanne.

     Maybe there really was a Higher Being. Maybe there wasn’t. Either way, Neil planned on finding out.


     In the hours since Neil had left Bowditch, he had thought of nothing besides ridding the world of the man who had pushed Maryanne over the edge.

     The day was bright, but the cemetery was empty, and he knew no one would see as he retrieved the Glock from his coat pocket.

     What better place to kill a man than this: a forest of the dead, where the trees were stone monuments to once-living creatures, the roots a forest of bones and rotted wood?

     Neil brushed the tips of his fingers across the stone lettering, the name of that young woman – that girl – who had once meant so much to him. Some may say he had destroyed her life. Some may argue the reverse.

     Neil racked the slide and pressed the gun to his temple. He felt the cold circle of polymer touch the side of his head, held it steady against his thin flesh. This was it, he thought, taking one final look at the headstone. The sunny world around him seemed to fade into white. Maryanne’s final resting place was all that he bothered to see.

     Then, he stopped. His finger rested on the trigger.

     This isn’t what you’re supposed to do, Maryanne said.

     “Yes it is,” he growled. “You did it, I have to do it too. It’s the same thing, except I was in jail for fifteen goddamn years before I got the chance!”

     You don’t deserve this, she said, there’s no easy end for you, you have to press on and find a new life, to live and stew in your guilt.

     “There is no new life!” he cried. “You think I can just go back to how I was? I’m fifteen years older and ready to be done with this shit!”

     Your lot isn’t to give up, she said, your curse is to live.

     He knew it was true. Even before he had come here, he had known, on some level, that he wouldn’t finish the job. He was meant to keep going, to atone. Where, and how, he had no idea.

     But Maryanne had taken the easy way out. In her memory, and in penance for his sins, Neil would keep going.

Click HERE for the full book, available September 1, 2024

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