USA Today and #1 Denver Post bestselling author Carter Wilson explores the depths of psychological tension and paranoia in his dark, domestic thrillers. Carter is a two-time winner of the Colorado Book Award and his novels have received starred reviews from Publishers Weekly,Booklist, and Library Journal. He lives outside Boulder, Colorado. Visit him at www.carterwilson.com.
The following is an excerpt from “The Dead Girl in 2A.”
Each week, The Colorado Sun and Colorado Humanities & Center For The Book feature an excerpt from a Colorado book and an interview with the author. Explore the SunLit archives at coloradosun.com/sunlit.
2020 Colorado Book Awards finalist for Thriller
Wednesday, October 10
GODDAMN IF IT ISN’T happening again.
Right here in the airport terminal, a sudden burst of emotion, coming from nowhere. I have no idea what triggers it, if anything at all, but here it is, spidering up my chest and flushing my face. A wave of heat, and a moment, always just a moment, where I have to force back tears. A single tear snakes down my cheek, and I wipe it away. I rarely used to cry. Maybe once a year? And now…I’m a mess. The thing is, it’s not even sadness. Not exactly. It’s more like a sudden, profound understanding of something, a sense the universe just contracted a fraction smaller around me, and in the process, I become larger within it and have more of a sense of place. Of purpose. I remember taking a Psych 101 class in college and learning about Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. We learned the ultimate goal, the greatest need, was self- actualization. Its definition always resonated with me: The realization or fulfillment of one’s talents and potentialities. I remember thinking for so long, how is it possible to completely fulfill all of your potential? How would you even know?
But now, in the moments where sudden emotion threatens to buckle my legs, it’s exactly how I feel. As if I’m reaching my potential, even when I can’t point to anything that’s changed about me. Like I’m standing at the podium, having a gold medal hung around my neck as the anthem plays, but I haven’t even gotten up off the couch.
Steady yourself, Jake. I board the 757, giving the outside of the plane a light tap as I pass through the doorway. Superstition of mine. Touch the plane gently, pay a little respect, and she’ll get me to my destination in one piece.
Today, that destination is Denver. The flight attendant at the front of the plane nods and smiles, but there’s exhaustion behind her well- worn smile, desperation just behind her blazing, sea- blue eyes. She’s in some kind of struggle. I don’t know what it is, of course. But I know it as certain as I’m breathing.
Last year, I wouldn’t have noticed anything about the woman beyond the half second she smiled at me. A lot has changed in the last year. First class, seat 2B. I haven’t flown first class in years, but my client insisted. I didn’t argue.
I place my leather bag in the overhead bin, slide it to the left, then reach for my noise- canceling Bose headphones. After slipping them on, I take my seat.
I thumb on the headphones, and the ambient sound around me is sucked away, as if I’ve just been dropped inside a snow globe. Then I navigate my phone to a playlist containing only the recordings of thunderstorms. I know each track and can almost predict the violent thunderclaps as easily as the hook from a song. My go- to is a tropical storm, where nestled within the hiss of a rain- forest downpour are the metronomic calls of some exotic, lonely bird. In my mind, the bird is telling his mate to find shelter because the rain is exceptionally fierce and unrelenting.
The pang of emotion has subsided, but I know it sits close to the surface. I wait for it as I would a hiccup, in anxious anticipation. Nothing comes. Breathe in, hold, breathe out, then glance around me. Passengers file in, and each who passes leaves a trace of energy behind, like a dust mote of dried skin, clinging to me. Collecting. This woman is pleased with something. That man is frustrated. A child is scared.
All this emotional noise. I can’t escape it. Last year, I wouldn’t have noticed a thing. A sudden flash of Em’s face in my mind. Strange, in my mind, I don’t see the scar.
Thunder rumbles deep in my ears. The sound of a steady, digital downpour. I look out the window at the tarmac, where actual lighter rain falls. Cold, steady drizzle. Not common for Boston in October.
I give myself another memory test. What was the weather yester- day? I close my eyes and think about it, feeling the tendrils of panic swipe at me as my brain freezes. Then it comes. Cloudy. Maybe sixty degrees. Okay, good.
The accident with Em isn’t the main reason Abby and I separated, though the stress of her continuing recovery finally broke us. No, the real issue is I’m losing my goddamn mind, yet a part of me embraces the process. Abby’s been trying to help, but I keep her at a distance. She’s worried about my memory loss and my mood swings. I’m too young for a midlife crisis, she says, and too old for puberty. She Googles my symptoms, reporting back to me dismal potential diagnoses like early-onset Alzheimer’s, or even borderline personality disorder.
Abby thinks the accident caused my behavior change, but the accident was in January. She knows this all started happening a good month before that. Besides, the accident barely hurt me, just a bloody nose from the impact of the airbag. It was my little girl who took the brunt of the damage.
She shouldn’t have been in the front seat, Jake. I know. I know. What were you thinking? What’s wrong with you? I don’t know. She could be dead, Jake. Dead. Goddamn it, don’t you think I know that? No, the accident isn’t the cause of the things happening to me. I look down, aware that I’m doing it again, sliding my wedding band back and forth along my finger. What’ll happen if there’s no longer a ring there? Maybe it will be like a phantom limb, something I’ve lost but can still feel. An itch of regret.
A woman standing in the aisle is talking to me. I lift the left cup of my headphones.
“Hi, that’s me,” she says. My seatmate. 2A. She smiles and points to the open seat. She seems nervous.
“Of course.” I stand and let her in, and as she passes within inches of me, I catch her scent, thin traces of flowers layered within something I cannot at first identify. It’s distinct, and it takes me a moment to place the other smell, and while I’m not positive, I think it smells like mosquito repellent. But it’s not the actual smell that jolts me. It’s the memory of the smell, fleeting but visceral, a déjà vu so powerful, I could be in a waking dream. I try to hold on to it, explore it until I can pinpoint the memory, but it washes away within seconds.
Isn’t that something they say? Smell triggers memory more than any other sense?
As she sits, I try to look at her without staring. About my age, I’m guessing, midthirties. Perhaps younger. Kinked red- brown hair, which falls well past her shoulders. Slim and rather pale. She seems out of time, as if her looks would be better suited for a character in Les Misérables.
I return to my seat, buckle in, then edge up the volume on my headphones. The rumbling thunderstorms drown out the safety demonstration and the roar of the engines as we take off, but my attention is focused on 2A the entire time. I don’t talk to her; she doesn’t talk to me. I order whiskey; she gets water.
I reach for my drink as I remove my headphones, no longer wanting to hear the rain or anything else. The cabin lights are dimmed. My seatmate and I both have our reading lights on.
She’s writing in a journal. Left- handed. I steal sideways glances from two feet away. She seems unaware of her audience.
The sense of memory slams into me a second time, more power- fully than before. This is especially jolting because memories have been sliding away rather than appearing lately.
I look at my arm, which is suddenly washed in goose bumps. Jesus, what is happening? There’s something else I never would have done a year ago, and that’s start a conversation with the person on the plane next to me. But the familiarity of this woman is so intense that I’m barely aware I’m speaking before I actually hear the words coming out my mouth.
“Excuse me, do I know you?”
The Book of Clara 10/10/2018
Dear Reader, Page One. The Book of Clara.
You have found this book, so I like to think you have a responsibility to read it. It’s all I ask. I want someone to know me.
I’ll be working backward, starting from the present moment and moving into my past, year after year, until I get to my very first memories, which don’t really begin until very late, maybe around when I was eight. Moreover, lately, I’ve been forgetting swaths of my adulthood, so forgive me if my writing is scattered.
When I hold the journal to my face, the blank pages have the faintest scent of chemicals, but the black leather cover smells of raw, beautiful flesh. A worn saddle from two hundred years ago, hung to dry in a dusty barn. I close my eyes and imagine a life back then, but the moment doesn’t last. That’s been happening. My mind fizzles. I think my brain is a battery that has reached the end of its useful life, no longer able to hold a charge.
Which is one reason for this journey, and this journal entry. I want you to know some of what I’ve seen, of what I’ve experienced. The sum of the parts that add up to the existence of Clara Stowe. You will likely judge me for what I’ve done in the past year. Say to yourself, Why would she make those decisions? And you will likely be right in asking.
Strange things have been happening. Strange and beautiful, leading me to make a decision I surely won’t be able to explain here through words. But I’m at least going to try.
What kind of strange things? I don’t even have to reach back in time for an example. There’s one right next to me.
This is the longest I’ve been surrounded by people in some time, yet I’m much calmer than expected. Perhaps my sense of purpose is more powerful than my unease with the world at large. Still, I cannot escape the craving to be back in my apartment, surrounded by books and blankets, cozy, cocooned, and removed from society.
The airplane smells strangely of sawdust and sweat, broken- down people and, I think, fear. Maybe it’s a fear I’ve never noticed before, a collective worry we’ll crash, sending our bits and pieces scattering somewhere over a tiny stamp of America. I don’t have this fear, or at least it’s far down on my list, because just being in the outside world is horrifying enough. A plane crash would be a terrible way to die, surely, but the real shame is no one would ever read these words. They’d incinerate along with luggage and bones and hair.
We’ve been flying for about twenty minutes, and I’ve been able to sneak enough glances at the man sitting next to me to form the distinct sense I know him. But that’s not possible, is it? First class on a 757, seats 2A and 2B, departing from Boston Logan, bound for Denver. I’m not even supposed to be in first class, but when I checked in, my seat had been upgraded. But yet there it is. That energy of familiarity about this man, crackling and popping.
Perhaps even his scent is familiar. His cologne, maybe. He could be my age, give or take a couple years in either direction. His face has a thin layer of stubble that looks less stylish and more a concession. Close- cropped hair, brown. Blue oxford shirt, sleeves rolled up over forearms that are grooved by muscles, telling me he’s no stranger to the gym. Jeans. Black sneakers, clean.
On his left ring finger is a simple gold wedding band, which this man slides up and down over the knuckle with his right hand. Back and forth, as if it might burn through his skin if it settled too long in one spot.
I can’t discern anything concrete about why he’s so familiar, and whenever I dare glance over, I have only his profile to observe and his energy to feel. There’s a toughened sadness to him, like a cop pushing past his emotions to continue working a brutal crime scene.
There’s nothing specific that tells me why I should know this man, other than the primal sense that I do, but I no longer trust my hunches. Reality has become a river for me, part of it deep and permanent, other areas dangerously shallow and in high risk of drying out.
We share a drink rest between us, his side occupied by a whiskey, mine by water. He turns on his light, and I risk another glance. As I do, I meet his gaze.
I know these eyes. No. Not quite the eyes, but the way he looks at me. Unique as a fingerprint.
I think I might—