Marie first noticed the man at security. Neat brown hair, tastefully dressed, just a small duffel to send through the x-ray. On business, she decided, or a tourist. Not a traveller. She had checked her large backpack and now had only her daypack with book, iPod and snacks to sustain her through the flight.
She noticed him again when she stopped at a bar and drank a beer while she waited for her flight to be called. He was sitting by himself at a table in the corner, a forgotten rum and cola by his hand, eyes scanning the people coming and going through the terminal. When he looked her way she turned back to her beer. She felt his eyes stay on her for a moment and slip away. After a taste of her drink she checked over her shoulder, but he was already gone.
With a seat near the tail, she was called to board the plane first, and found place on the left side, in an aisle seat. Around her bags were stowed in overhead lockers and seats tilted then returned to the locked, upright position. All the rows around her filled while the window seat beside her remained empty.
Only when the captain came across the intercom, stating that the plane was waiting for luggage to be loaded before takeoff, did the last passenger make his way down the aisles. His neat hair was now pushed up at the front; as he walked he ran a hand over his part again, leaving a trail of strands some of which remained upright. He scanned the aisles as he went, meeting the eye of the passenger in each seat as he went until he stopped next to Marie.
She watched him for a moment as he continued to look at each person on the plane in the last few aisles, then turned to her and sucked a breath in through his teeth. A stewardess asked him to take his seat, and he shifted his weight from one foot to another and back again.
“Not a good flier?” Marie asked.
His eyebrows went up at the question. He looked at his feet. Back into her eyes.
“Actually,” he said, “I am a fantastic flier. But I am a touch claustrophobic.”
“Oh,” she said. “Would you like the aisle seat?”
“Yes. I would like that very much.”
Marie unclasped her seatbelt and shifted over the arm-rest and settled into the window seat, the stewardess smiling at them. When Marie’s neighbour had stashed his duffle under the seat in front of him she offered her hand.
“People call me Zach.”
“People call you? What’s your name that they call you Zach?”
“Ask me later.”
“Okay,” she said. “How does a guy who’s claustrophobic become a fantastic flier?”
“How does a caterpillar become a butterfly? There are some things we’re just born to do.”
The hostess called for the passenger’s attention and showed them the exits and how to do their seatbelts.
“Where are you from?” Marie said.
“Shush, they’re explaining what we need to do in an emergency.”
“I already know that. Have you ever been on a plane where there was an emergency.”
“There’s always a first time.”
The plane took off. As they reached thirty thousand feet, the sound of the engines died away. Marie flicked through the in flight magazine, scrolled through some songs on his iPod, turned to look at Zach again. He was reading from a beaten copy of Steppenwolfe.
“So where are you from?”
“I’m not French.”
“Well, I am.”
“I won’t hold that against you.”
“What’s your name?”
He closed the paperback and placed it on his lap. “You aren’t going to leave me alone are you?”
“Sorry,” she said, “conversation’s the easiest way to pass the time. What’s your name?”
“Is that a real name?”
“What makes a name real?”
“I once knew a girl named Iona, which isn’t so bad, but her family name was Kyte.”
“I see.” He sat up in his chair and looked up the aisle.
“Who are you looking for?”
“What do you mean?”
“You were looking for someone in the airport too?”
Maire flushed, her cheeks rosy, the tips of her ears bright red. “I saw you, in the airport. At the bar. Looking for someone.”
“So who are they?”
Zach sucked a long breath in through flared nostrils. “You know what the best thing about this place is?”
“What place?” She looked around. “The plane?”
“Your world. If I tell you who I am looking for, one of three things will happen. Either you won’t believe me, because you think I am lying or I am crazy. Or you will believe me, but you won’t tell anyone because you know they will think you’re lying or crazy. Or you will believe me, and you will tell people, but they will think you are lying.”
“Or crazy. You really want to know?”
Marie nodded, “now I have to know.”
Zach cleared his throat. “How old do you think I am?”
“Um, thirty five?”
“Thank you. I am eighty five and a half thousand years old. Give or take a thousand.”
“You’re with me?”
“No, I think you’re lying.”
“No, just lying. Go on.”
“Do you believe in God?”
Marie raised an eyebrow. “Do you?”
“Nope. I know that God exists, and I have no faith in him at all. I was created by an angel to serve as a general in the armies of God in the war against the betrayers. But I left the host and came to earth, because frankly angels shit me.”
“All of them.”
“No, which one made you?”
“Oh,” he said. “Michael.”
“Wow. Is that who you’re looking for?”
“Goodness, no,” Zach said. “If Michael were here I wouldn’t need to look for him. His presence would blind us in moments, burned into our minds forever. No I am looking for... well, think of them as truancy officers.”
“You’re a fugitive?”
“Of a kind.”
“And you’re keeping an eye out for bounty hunters?”
“In a way.”
“And you’re nervous because in an enclosed space, it’s harder to evade capture?”
He gave her a broad smile. “Very well done, Marie.”
She pushed herself up in her seat. “So what do they look like?”
Zach pushed her back down. “Easy there. To you they just look like... well, like people. But to me, they burn like a torch in the darkness.”
A meal was served, lunch or dinner, Marie could not tell the difference on aeroplanes. After the trays had been collected, the lights were dimmed and people lay their seats back. Marie asked where Zach was going, keeping her voice low between the sleeping passengers.
“Nowhere, really. I find that if I keep moving its harder for other angels to find me.”
“Why don’t you want to be found?”
“Ever had a job you didn’t like?”
“Yes, of course. I used to wash dishes in a cafe. Not much fun.”
“I had a job I didn’t like for eighty thousand years.”
“Oh, no,” Zach shook his head. “The last five thousand I’ve been hiding out on earth.”
“And you’ve never been caught?”
“Found, not caught. Not yet. But there’s always tomorrow.”
“That must be a terrible thing, always living on the run.”
“It’s not so bad,” Zach said. “The middle ages were a lot of fun.”
“Why are you catching a plane?”
“I’m sorry, Marie, you’ve lost me again. What was the tangent there?”
“If you are an angel, Zach, why are you catching a plane.”
“Oh,” he pushed his thumbs together and splayed his fingers. “Do you know how much force it takes to lift an adult body?”
“Heaps, really a lot. My wings are huge, and my wings are... well, they’re not like in the church windows.”
“What are they like?”
The stewardess stopped over them, leaned low. “We were talking about your condition up front, sir. Do you think it would help to sit in the cockpit for a while? With the claustrophobia?”
Zach looked over at Marie, eyebrows raised. “Want to have a look up front?”
They undid their seatbelts and followed the stewardess. At the threshold, Zach ushered Marie inside. “Is this normal?” he asked the stewardess.
“Not really, but if the captain’s opened it it’s okay.”
He smiled at her and stepped through. The Marie was talking to the pilot, asking about some of the dials. As she looked back over her shoulder the captain stood up, took off his hat. His eyes lit with the fury of a thousand suns.
“Hello, Zarachay,” he said.
Jean-Luc hooked the voice recorder up and started scanning the contents. There was a knock at the door, and Karen came in.
“Anything strange in your box?”
“Just hooked it up,” he said. “What’s up?”
“Mine’s only got fifteen seconds of recording.”
“Hey? It’s been on the bottom of the sea for two years. Checked for corruption?” He tapped away at the console, loading the voice recording.
“I’m telling you. Fifteen seconds of rapid deceleration then nothing.”
“Well, let’s see what the crew has to say about- huh.”
Karen leaned in over his shoulder. “What?”
“Let’s- I’ll just play it.”
They listened to the recording. Karen sat down, and they listened to it again. And again, holding hands.
Karen stood up and walked to the door. “What do we say?”
“Two years on the bottom of the sea,” Jean-Luc said. “Anything could have happened to this data.”
She nodded and left the room. He played the recording back one more time:
Five seconds of static.
A woman’s voice- “Oh god, they’re so beautiful...”
A crackle of fire.
He tapped at the console, and erased the recording forever.