chapter 1

 

My name is R. It’s not much of a name, but someone I love gave it to me. Whatever past lives return to me and whatever other names they bring, this is the one that matters. My first life fled without a fight and left nothing behind, so I doubt it was a loss worth mourning. A man I don’t remember mixed genes with a woman I can’t recall, and I was called to the stage. I stumbled through the curtain, squinting into the blinding light of the birth canal, and after a brief and banal performance, I died.

This is the arc of the average life—unexamined, unremarked, unremarkable—and it should have ended there. In simpler times, life was a one act play, and when it was over we took our bows and caught our roses and enjoyed any applause we earned, then the spotlight faded and we shuffled backstage to nibble crackers in the greenroom of eternity.

Things work a little differently now.

Now we duck behind the curtain to find another stage. This one is dusty and cold, thick with cobwebs and reeking of rancid meat, and there is no spotlight, no audience, just a crowd of nameless extras sighing in the dark. I don’t know how many years I wandered that stage, performing horrific scenes from a script I couldn’t read. What I know is that sixty-seven days ago, I found an exit. I kicked open the door and stumbled out into the daylight of my third life, the one I never expected and certainly didn’t deserve, and now here I am, clumsily learning how to live it...

 

 

chapter 25

 

There has never been a more efficient departure in the history of commercial air travel.

The moment I lock the door behind me the plane shudders away from the gate. No searching for seats, no wrestling with the overhead bins, and certainly no safety demonstration. While I lock my kids in the bathroom—they seemed comfortable enough when I found them there—Abram races onto the runway like the plane is a sports car. The black specks behind us have grown into black lumps. Their warbling drone fills my ears like angry bees. I almost tumble down the aisle when Abram guns the engines and the plane surges forward.

“R!” Julie calls to me from business class. “Get up here!”

I fight my way forward while inertia drags me back. By the time I reach Julie, the plane is shuddering and shaking like we’re driving on a country road.

“Marcus!” Abram calls back to M, who’s sitting in the back of business class, several seats removed from the rest of us. “You cleared the runway, right?”

“Yes,” M says through gritted teeth, gripping the armrests so tight his fingers tremble.

“Nora drops down next to him and smiles. “Scared of flying?”

His eyes are wide. Beads of sweat glisten on his forehead. “Little bit.”

“I’ve never flown before. I’m excited.”

“Happy for you,” he growls, and Nora laughs. She reaches over and puts a hand on his forearm.

“Marcus. After everything we’ve lived through, we’re not going to die in a damn plane crash.”

M takes a deep breath and lets it out slowly. Nora pats his arm and settles back into her seat.

I fall into mine next to Julie and brace myself as the plane threatens to tear itself apart. She reaches out and grabs my hand, and I see no fear in her eyes. Despite everything, despite the many possible deaths circling our heads at this moment, the rattling of the plane and the choppers behind it and the unknown wilderness we’re flying into, her eyes are full of hope. It’s so bright that for a moment I swear there’s a glimmer of gold in their icy blue.

“Here we go,” she says, and with a final lunge, the plane leaves the ground. The shuddering stops. The only sound is the engines. We are gliding through space.

“Wow,” I hear Abram gasp to no one in particular, and I realize how little he actually expected this to work.

I scan the windows behind me until I find our pursuers. They are plainly visible now, but they have stopped growing. If they were equipped with missiles, or even high-caliber cannons like the last one, we might be in trouble, but these are not gunships. They are light craft salvaged from news stations and corporate buildings, and as we climb rapidly and they shrink away beneath us, the distant flashes of their rifles and handguns become less and less frightening. Finally, a towering cumulus welcomes us into its cottony bosom, and the world goes white.

A tightly held breath bursts out of M in the form of incredulous laughter.

Nora stares out the window, awestruck.

From the cockpit, I hear Sprout giggling and clapping in the copilot’s chair.

Julie squeezes my hand, and I realize it’s her left hand. Either she’s ignoring the pain in her finger, or she’s forgotten it.

The record player is still on. In the relative quiet of our ascent I can hear it popping and skipping on an inner groove. Then a gust of turbulence rocks the cabin, and the needle scratches back a few songs, landing almost exactly where we left it in that bittersweet melody of slow-boiling beauty.

So in looking to stray from the line
We decided instead we should pull out the thread
That was stitching us into this tapestry vile
And why wouldn’t you try? Perfect weather to fly


The fog around us flickers a few times, and suddenly we’re above it. An impossible fantasy landscape of creamy white towers stretches out before us, and here and there, in holes and gaps below, the real world peeks through, full of unknown threats and promises, shouting at us to come back and fight.

We’re coming, I tell the world, squeezing Julie’s hand harder. We’re ready for you.