Station Eleven (Page 44)

The departure of the Los Angeles flight left two pilots, Stephen and Roy. Roy announced his intention to fly out the day after the Los Angeles flight departed.

“Just reconnaissance,” he said. “I figure I’ll fly up to Marquette—I’ve got a buddy up there—I’ll take a look around, try to get some information on what’s going on, maybe get some supplies, and come back.”

He left alone the next morning in a small plane. He didn’t return.

“It just doesn’t make sense,” Elizabeth insisted. “Are we supposed to believe that civilization has just come to an end?”

“Well,” Clark offered, “it was always a little fragile, wouldn’t you say?” They were sitting together in the Skymiles Lounge, where Elizabeth and Tyler had set up camp.

“I don’t know.” Elizabeth spoke slowly, looking out at the tarmac. “I’ve been taking art history classes on and off for years, between projects. And of course art history is always pressed up close against non-art history, you see catastrophe after catastrophe, terrible things, all these moments when everyone must have thought the world was ending, but all those moments, they were all temporary. It always passes.”

Clark was silent. He didn’t think this would pass.

Elizabeth began telling him about a book she’d read once, years ago when she’d been stuck—but not this stuck, obviously—in an airport, and it was a vampire book, actually, not her usual sort of thing, but it had a device she kept thinking of. The setup was post-apocalyptic, she said, so you naturally assumed as you were reading it that the world had ended, all of it, but then it became clear through an ingenious flash-forward device that actually it wasn’t all of civilization that was lost, it was just North America, which had been placed under quarantine to keep the vampirism from spreading.

“I don’t think this is a quarantine,” Clark said. “I think there’s actually really nothing out there, or at least nothing good.”

There were in fact a number of solid arguments against the quarantine theory, namely that the pandemic had started in Europe, the last news reports had indicated chaos and disarray on every continent except Antarctica, and anyway how would one even go about isolating North America in the first place, given air travel and the fact that South America was after all more or less attached?

But Elizabeth was unshakable in her convictions. “Everything happens for a reason,” she said. “This will pass. Everything passes.” Clark couldn’t bring himself to argue with her.

Clark was careful to shave every three days. The men’s rooms were windowless, lit only by an ever-dwindling supply of scented candles from the gift shop, and the water had to be warmed over the fire outside, but Clark felt it was worth the effort. Several of the men in the airport weren’t shaving at all anymore, and the effect was wild and also frankly unflattering. Clark disliked the general state of unshavenness, partly for aesthetic reasons and partly because he was a believer in the broken-windows theory of urban-crime management, the way the appearance of dereliction can pave the way for more serious crimes. On Day Twenty-Seven he parted his hair neatly down the middle and shaved off the left side.

“It’s the haircut I had from ages seventeen through nineteen,” he told Dolores when she raised an eyebrow at him. Dolores was a business traveler, single, no family, which meant that she was one of the saner people in the airport. She and Clark had an agreement: she’d promised to tell him if he began showing signs of having lost his mind, and vice versa. What he didn’t tell her was that after all these years of corporate respectability, the haircut made him feel like himself again.

The maintenance of sanity required some recalibrations having to do with memory and sight. There were things Clark trained himself not to think about. Everyone he’d ever known outside the airport, for instance. And here at the airport, Air Gradia 452, silent in the distance near the perimeter fence, by unspoken agreement never discussed. Clark tried not to look at it and sometimes almost managed to convince himself that it was empty, like all of the other planes out there. Don’t think of that unspeakable decision, to keep the jet sealed rather than expose a packed airport to a fatal contagion. Don’t think about what enforcing that decision may have required. Don’t think about those last few hours on board.

Snow fell every few days after Roy left, but Elizabeth insisted on keeping a runway clear at all times. She was beginning to stare in a terrible way that made everyone afraid of her, so at first she was out there alone, shoveling the snow on Runway Seven by the hour, but then a few people went out to join her because celebrity still carried a certain currency and there she was all alone out there, gorgeous and single—and also, why not? Physical labor outdoors was preferable to wandering the same hatefully unchanging concourses or sitting around thinking about all the beloved people they were never going to see again or convincing themselves they heard voices coming from the Air Gradia jet. Eventually there were nine or ten people maintaining the runway, a core group who attracted volunteers from the periphery every now and again. Why not, though, really? Even if Elizabeth’s quarantine theory was too wonderful to be true—the idea that somewhere things continued on as before, untouched by the virus, children going to school and to birthday parties and adults going to work and meeting for cocktails in some other place, everyone talking about what a shame it was that North America had been lost but then the conversation eventually turning to sports, politics, the weather—there was still the military, with its secrets and its underground shelters, its stockpiles of fuel and medicine and food.

“They’ll need a clear runway to land on when they come for us,” Elizabeth said. “They’re going to come for us. You know that, right?”

“It’s possible,” Clark said, trying to be kind.

“If anyone was coming for us,” Dolores said, “I think they’d be here by now.”

But they did see an aircraft after the collapse, just one. On Day Sixty-five a helicopter crossed the sky in the far distance, the faintest vibration of sound moving rapidly from north to south, and they stood staring for some time after it passed. They kept up a vigil for a while after that, waiting outside in teams of two with brightly colored T-shirts to flag down aircraft in daylight, a signal fire burning all night, but nothing crossed the sky except birds and shooting stars.

The night sky was brighter than it had been. On the clearest nights the stars were a cloud of light across the breadth of the sky, extravagant in their multitudes. When Clark first noticed this, he wondered if he was possibly hallucinating. He assumed he held deep reservoirs of unspeakable damage that might at any moment blossom into insanity, the way his grandmother’s bone cancer had bloomed dark over the X-rays in her final months. But after a couple of weeks he felt that the thing with the stars was too consistent to be a hallucination—also too extreme, the way the airplanes cast shadows even when the moon was only a sliver—so he risked mentioning it to Dolores.

“It’s not your imagination,” Dolores said. He’d begun to think of her as his closest friend. They’d spent a pleasantly companionable day indoors, cleaning, and now they were helping build a bonfire with branches someone had dragged in from the woods. She explained it to him. One of the great scientific questions of Galileo’s time was whether the Milky Way was made up of individual stars. Impossible to imagine this ever having been in question in the age of electricity, but the night sky was a wash of light in Galileo’s age, and it was a wash of light now. The era of light pollution had come to an end. The increasing brilliance meant the grid was failing, darkness pooling over the earth. I was here for the end of electricity. The thought sent shivers up Clark’s spine.

“The lights will come back on someday,” Elizabeth kept insisting, “and then we’ll all finally get to go home.” But was there actually any reason to believe this?

The citizens of the airport had taken to meeting at the bonfire every night, an unspoken tradition that Clark hated and loved. What he loved was the conversation, the moments of lightness or even just silence, the not being by himself. But sometimes the small circle of people and firelight seemed only to accentuate the emptiness of the continent, the loneliness of it, a candle flickering in vast darkness.

It’s surprising how quickly the condition of living out of a carry-on suitcase on a bench by a departure gate can begin to seem normal.

Tyler wore a sweater of Elizabeth’s that went to his knees, the increasingly filthy sleeves rolled up. He kept to himself mostly, reading his comic books or Elizabeth’s copy of the New Testament.

They traded languages. By Day Eighty most of the people who’d arrived without English were learning it, in informal groups, and the English speakers were studying one or more of the languages carried here by Lufthansa, Singapore Airlines, Cathay Pacific, and Air France. Clark was learning French from Annette, who’d been a Lufthansa flight attendant. He whispered phrases to himself as he went about the chores of daily existence, the hauling of water and washing of clothes in the sink, learning to skin a deer, building bonfires, cleaning. Je m’appelle Clark. J’habite dans l’aeroport. Tu me manques. Tu me manques. Tu me manques.

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