In the weeks after the tragedy, as he accumulates pieces of information, he continues to replay that morning in his mind. More times than he can count, more ways than he can remember, he juggles the elements. He imagines details. Changes details. Struggles desperately to alter the outcome. It never works. The end is always the same, so abysmally far beyond his control. Usually it goes something like this:
She waits alone outside the hotel in the early gray of a cloudy dawn. Her suitcase is beside her. In her hand is a disposable cup half-filled with bad coffee. A tumbleweed rolls across the parking lot, pushed by a cold November wind coming off the High Plains. This is one of the details that changes. Sometimes he imagines an empty plastic bag or a loose page of newspaper drifting across the asphalt. They’re all clichés, but that’s how he sees it.
She stares down the hill toward Casper, Wyoming, a dismal little city spread across the base of a dark mountain like debris swept up by the wind and dumped there. As she watches, a tongue of dirty-looking cloud descends from the overcast to lick the stone face of the mountain.
She thinks, I should have called him. She thinks, I should have told him I’m sorry.
She sips from her hotel coffee, wishing, as she sometimes does when she’s stressed or troubled, that she still smoked.
George LeDuc pushes out through the hotel door. He’s wearing a jean jacket with sheepskin lining that he bought in a store in downtown Casper the day before. “Makes me look like a cowboy,” he’d said with an ironic grin. LeDuc is full-blood Ojibwe. He’s seventy, with long white hair. He rolls his suitcase to where she stands and parks it beside hers.
“You look like you didn’t sleep too good,” he says. “Did you call him?”
She stares at the bleak city, the black mountain, the gray sky. “No.”
“Call him, Jo. It’ll save you both a whole lot of heartache.”
“He’s gone by now.”
“Leave him a message. You’ll feel better.”
“He could have called me,” she points out.
“Could have. Didn’t. Mexican standoff. Is it making you happy?” He rests those warm brown Anishinaabe eyes on her. “Call Cork,” he says.
Behind them the others stumble out the hotel doorway, four men looking sleepy, appraising the low gray sky with concern. One of them is being led by another, as if blind.
“Still no glasses?” LeDuc asks.
“Can’t find the bastards anywhere,” Edgar Little Bear replies. “Ellyn says she’ll send me a pair in Seattle.” The gray-haired man lifts his head and sniffs the air. “Smells like snow.”
“Weather Channel claims a storm’s moving in,” Oliver Washington, who’s guiding Little Bear, offers.
LeDuc nods. “I heard that, too. I talked to the pilot. He says no problem.”
“Hope you trust this guy,” Little Bear says.
“He told me yesterday he could fly through the crack in the Statue of Liberty’s ass.”
Little Bear’s eyes swim, unfocused as he looks toward LeDuc. “Lady Liberty’s wearing a dress, George.”
“You ever hear of hyperbole, Edgar?” LeDuc turns back to Jo and says in a low voice, “Call him.”
“The airport van will be here any minute.”
She puts enough distance between herself and the others for privacy, draws her cell phone from her purse, and turns it on. When it’s powered up, she punches in the number of her home telephone. No one answers. Voice mail kicks in, and she leaves this: “Cork, it’s me.” There’s a long pause as she considers what to say next. Finally: “I’ll call you later.”
In his imagining, this is a detail that never changes. It’s one of the few elements of the whole tragic incident that’s set in stone. Her recorded voice, the empty silence of her long hesitation.
“Any luck?” LeDuc asks when she rejoins the others.
She shakes her head. “He didn’t answer. I’ll try again in Seattle.”
The van pulls into the lot and stops in front of the hotel. The small gathering of passengers lift their luggage and clamber aboard. They all help Little Bear, for whom everything is a blur.
“Heard snow’s moving in,” Oliver Washington tells the driver.
“Yep. Real ass kicker they’re saying. You folks’re getting out just in time.” The driver swings the van door closed and pulls away.
It’s no more than ten minutes to the airport where the charter plane is waiting. The pilot helps them aboard and gets them seated.
“Bad weather coming in, we heard,” Scott No Day tells him.
The pilot’s wearing a white shirt with gold and black epaulets, a black cap with gold braid across the crown. “A storm front’s moving into the Rockies. There’s a break west of Cody. We ought to be able to fly through before she closes.”
Except for Jo, all those aboard have a tribal affiliation. No Day is Eastern Shoshone. Little Bear is Northern Arapaho. Oliver Washington and Bob Tall Grass are both Cheyenne. The pilot, like LeDuc, is Ojibwe, a member of the Lac Courte Oreilles band out of Wisconsin.
The pilot gives them the same preflight speech he delivered to Jo and LeDuc the day before at the regional airport outside Aurora. It’s rote, but he throws in a few funny lines that get his passengers smiling and comfortable. Then he turns and takes his seat at the controls up front.
They taxi, lift off, and almost immediately plow into clouds thick as mud. The windows streak with moisture. The plane shivers, and the metal seems to twist in the grip of the powerful air currents. They rattle upward at a steep angle for a few minutes, then suddenly they’ve broken into blue sky with the morning sun at their backs and below them a mattress of white cloud. Like magic, the ride smoothes out.
Her thinking goes back to Aurora, to her husband. They’ve always had a rule: Never go to bed mad. There should be a corollary, she thinks: Never separate for a long trip with anger still between you.
In the seat opposite, Edgar Little Bear, not a young man, closes his purblind eyes and lays his head back to rest. Next to him, No Day, slender and with a fondness for turquoise and silver, opens a dog-eared paperback and begins to read. In the seats directly ahead of Jo and LeDuc, Washington and Tall Grass continue a discussion begun the night before, comparing the merits of the casinos on the Vegas strip to those on Fremont Street. Jo pulls a folder from the briefcase at her feet and opens it on her lap.
LeDuc says, “Hell, if we’re not prepared now, we never will be.”
“It helps me relax,” she tells him.
He smiles. “Whatever.” And like his old contemporary Edgar Little Bear, he lays his head back and closes his eyes.
They’re all part of a committee tasked with drafting recommendations for oversight of Indian gaming casinos, recommendations they’re scheduled to present at the annual conference of the National Congress of American Indians. Her mind isn’t at all on the documents in her hands. She keeps returning to the argument the day before, to her final exchange with Cork just before she boarded the flight.
“Look, I promise I won’t make any decisions until you’re home and we can talk,” he’d said.
“Not true,” she’d replied. “Your mind’s already made up.”
“Oh? You can read my mind now?”
She’d used the blue needles of her eyes to respond.
“For Christ sake, Jo, I haven’t even talked to Marsha yet.”
“That doesn’t mean you don’t know what you want.”
“Well, I sure as hell know what you want.”
“And it doesn’t matter to you in the least, does it?”
“It’s my life, Jo.”
“Our life, Cork.”
She’d turned, grabbed the handle of her suitcase, and rolled it away without even a goodbye.
She’s always said good-bye, always with a kiss. But not this time. And the moment of that heated separation haunts her. It would have been so easy, she thinks now, to turn back. To say “I’m sorry. I love you. Good-bye.” To leave without the barbed wire of their anger between them.
They’ve been in the air forty-five minutes when the first sign of trouble comes. The plane jolts as if struck by a huge fist. LeDuc, who’s been sleeping, comes instantly awake. Washington and Tall Grass, who’ve been talking constantly, stop in midsentence. They all wait.
From up front, the pilot calls back to them in an easy voice, “Air pocket. Nothing to worry about.”
They relax. The men return to their conversation. LeDuc closes his eyes. Jo focuses on the presentation she’s put together for Seattle.
With the next jolt a few minutes later, the sound of the engines changes and the plane begins to descend, losing altitude rapidly. Very quickly they plunge into the dense cloud cover below.
“Hey!” No Day shouts toward the pilot. “What the hell’s going on?”
“Fasten your seat belts!” the pilot calls over his shoulder. He grips the radio mic with his right hand. “Salt Lake, this is King Air N7723X. We have a problem. I’m descending out of eighteen thousand feet.”
The folder that was on Jo’s lap has been thrown to the floor, the pages of her careful presentation scattered. She grips the arms of her seat and stares out at the gray clouds screaming past. The plane rattles and thumps, and she’s afraid the seams of rivets will pop.
“Goddamn!” No Day cries out. “Shit!”
LeDuc’s hand covers her own. She looks into his brown eyes. The left wing dips precariously, and the plane begins to roll. As they start an irrevocable slide toward earth, they both know the outcome. With this knowledge, a sense of peaceful acceptance descends, and they hold hands, these old friends.
Her greatest regret as she accepts the inevitable—Cork imagines this, because it is his greatest regret as well—is that they didn’t say to each other, “I’m sorry.” Didn’t say,” I love you.” Didn’t say good-bye.