The Contrails Had a Sense of Doom

By Mariah Eppes



Three years ago, I woke up on the Q train in New York City, on the Manhattan Bridge going to Brooklyn. I opened my eyes and saw the Statue of Liberty in the distance through the filmy window. It was the first time I’d ever seen her. I had no idea who I was.


I had potential to be a popular news story, but the timing wasn’t very good. I woke up on Tuesday, November 8, 2016 and stayed at the hospital for over six months. The media were fatigued all year, of course. My existence wasn’t broadcast to the public beyond the first small articles while I was committed, so by the time May arrived, anyone who heard about me in November had forgotten.


If anything, I was an inconvenience. My adamance that I had no memory made people skeptical. I overheard one of my doctors saying that amnesia didn’t work like that in real life. Obviously I’d made him very uncomfortable. He tried to convince Dr. Garcia to kick me out.


I don’t have very sharp memories of that time. Apparently, I was uncooperative and emotional. Even getting me to the hospital was an ordeal. Two good samaritans on the train had taken ownership of me (as I screamed, thrashed, sobbed—so they tell me) until I could be placed into police custody.


My dental and other medical information turned up no matching records. The police offered the help of a private investigator who could be employed to find out who I was. I said maybe down the road. He was expensive, and I had no money, nothing at all. Not even a name.


So I started a life somehow.


The first months were dark and difficult. Dr. Garcia estimated I was between twenty-eight and thirty-two years old. I went with thirty. They called me Jane Doe, so I kept Jane, and lifted a last name from the city that helped me: York.


I managed to enroll at City College last spring, after the logistical battle of trying to get identifying documents with no birthday and no history. Wherever I was from, I spoke English, and my voice had no other linguistically identifiable features beyond a very slight, probably British accent—though the specific dialect was not verifiable. The doctors who cared for me advocated on my behalf; said it was theoretically possible (though, of course, obscenely rare and unprecedented) that I could have such complete amnesia. There was no reason for them to think I meant any harm.

I met Ben at City College. He works in IT. His birthday is April 5th, and he is forty-six years old. I am in love with him. The last two years have felt good, brimming with actual hope and possibilities.


Then I remembered.


It wasn’t an emotional revelation. I woke up one morning with images in my head, and thought at first they were the remains of a dream. But the scenes had a distinctness to them that dreams do not.

The first memories I had were:

  1. The quaint interior of a small cottage. There were cloth doilies on a wooden table, yellowed with age. The light over the scene was rich and orange. Late afternoon.

  2. A green suitcase lying open on a queen-sized bed in an otherwise sparse room, neatly packed with folded clothing.

  3. A flash of purple evening sky, and two parallel airplane contrails cutting it in half.

  4. An outdoor cafe, sitting across a round metal table from a woman drinking ice water through a straw.



The woman at the cafe was the most vivid of the memories. I could see her hair, her hands, the folds of her clothes in astonishing clarity. Dark brown hair, shiny and curling loosely. Her hands were bony but robust. Most disturbingly, I knew her name. Without a doubt: she was Claire.


Ben slept on next to me. He was a silent, immobile sleeper with a daily schedule regular as clockwork. He was usually showered and reading headlines before I was even conscious. I often felt a sense of security in knowing that someone else was awake while I wasn't. To retrieve that security, I tried to go back to sleep. I pretended while Ben shifted and began his routine. When the alarm rang at 7, I began mine. The memories drifted to the bottom of my mind as I took each normal action. I didn’t tell Ben. I just couldn’t, not when he grinned at me with crumbs from the toast in his beard.


Since it was Thursday, I had no classes, so Ben kissed me goodbye and went on his way. I poured the rest of the coffee he’d made into a mug. I sat at the table and Claire returned to me, the image of her across another table, long ago.


Or maybe not long ago.


I thought that I should probably contact Dr. Garcia, but I hadn’t seen him in seven months. I considered my mind to be good and analytical even if it was missing pieces. I’d proven this much to myself after beginning my coursework. I would not panic. I would go about understanding my memories with a rational method.


First, the living room in the afternoon light. A little room in a little house, clean, but occupied for a long time. The table setting was more complex than what you’d normally see in someone’s house. There were various utensils of various sizes and dishes with no obvious purpose. Did I know how to properly set a table?


The room looked old fashioned. Perhaps the home of an older relative? Aunt, grandmother? Parents? I shuddered. Not parents. I tended to have odd visceral reactions to the idea that I might have parents somewhere. Dr. Garcia said it could indicate some kind of early attachment or separation wound, but that never really interested me because it was so hypothetical.


The next memory was of the suitcase. Open on the bed; a weird, muddy, green-brown color. The room itself had no other distinguishing features. Maybe I was a constant, overworked traveler? It could have been any anonymous hotel room. I didn’t have enough feeling toward the room to suggest that it was my home.


And then the airplane contrails. I had to believe that whoever I was, I still retained some essence of myself in my current life. With that logic, this memory made the most sense. I was fascinated by airplanes. I hoped to study something to do with aviation or aeronautics eventually, once my lower-level courses were finished. But in order to keep pursuing the train of thought, I had to be honest with myself. My study of aviation was barred by more than just my academic qualifications.


I suffered from an intense airplane phobia. I was liable to panic even when we drove near the airport. Sometimes, on a walk in the city with Ben, I’d see a plane passing and force myself to watch it, overcome with the feeling that if I didn’t, it might crash into a building. The first time Ben caught me doing this he asked me what was wrong, and I told him.


He looked aghast. “You can’t say stuff like that, Jane.”


“Why?”


Right there, on the corner of 74th Street and Second Avenue, Ben had to tell me about 9/11. I, pathetically, started crying. This was earlier on. He took me to Dr. Garcia.


There was nothing to say about Claire. I didn’t recognize her.


With my inquiry at a dead end, I sipped my coffee and scrolled through the Wikipedia article about contrails. Short for condensation trails. Line-shaped clouds produced by aircraft engine exhaust or changes in air pressure. I liked these simple defining statements: this is what it is.


I clicked into the general page on aircraft, felt the familiar apprehension. Simple statements helped. An aircraft is a vehicle that is able to fly by gaining support from the air. I was consumed by the long discussion of mechanics and engineering for the better part of an hour. Since it was Thursday, I had no schedule, and losing that time didn’t matter.


Perhaps inevitably, I landed on the dedicated page for aviation accidents. This wasn’t good for me, but it was easy to get absorbed by it. The disasters were listed in order by number of fatalities.


Since I had an affinity for good explanations and scientific processes, the most compelling cases to me were the mysteries. That’s why I began looking into Independent Airlines Flight 1016. The flight had disappeared from the radar two hours after taking off in London, bound for Saõ Paulo, in February 2015. Investigators suspected the plane had crashed in the Atlantic Ocean, but the wreck was never found.


The abnormalities in the case were in its normalities: no distress signal, a normal flight path, a clean report from an inspection that took place only a few days before the incident. The strangest evidence was a series of “sightings” of the plane, all in different places at similar times, so that it was impossible for every witness to have seen the plane. The most publicized story was an elderly woman who said that she saw the jet flying low over her home near Bristol, England. If her testimony was true, then the plane was on an entirely different path than the one the authorities had claimed. Conspiracy theories abounded, but I had little interest in them. I just wanted to know the facts.


I watched an interview with the old woman dated two weeks after the plane disappeared.


“What reason do I have to lie?” she said. She had a tremor, which made her appear to be nodding. “I just think of the families. The poor families who don't know what happened. Someone… someone should be trying to find out.”


The backdrop of the woman’s home was blurry behind her head. At the end of the interview there was a short filler clip of the woman shaking the journalist’s hand. More of her home was visible in this shot. I saw a table behind her, yellowed doilies, extraneous dishware.


I paused the video to look closer. Didn’t the table setting match the one in my memory? It was the wrong time of day. Without the afternoon glow I couldn’t be sure. But hadn’t the chairs been situated just that way, with thin cushions tied onto the seats?


I read a few more repetitive articles about the woman’s story. My morning fell away. She had eventually been discredited. A niece came forward to say that the great-aunt was losing her mental faculties. I had to admit I was relieved, even though it was just silliness to make the connection at all.


After the old woman’s testimony was swept aside, the flight became a more typical tragedy. I found an article about the 216 victims, which I only read for a second before leaving the page. Their photos and biographies made me feel sick.


But I did dig into other details. I could not control my morbid fascination. In yet another odd circumstance, the crew at Heathrow had failed to load a whole cart of luggage intended for Flight 1016. This served as excellent fodder for journalists. One popular article had ominous photos of the abandoned luggage; all that was left of the doomed passengers. I scrolled through them. One neat row of about six bags had a large greenish suitcase, standing out from the rest in its unusual color.


Suddenly I thought I was going to vomit. I even ran to the sink and dry-heaved for a minute or two.


Silliness? I didn’t want to go down that familiar decline toward panic. But I suddenly could not see another explanation. The luggage, meant for the flight, was the same color as the suitcase on the bed in my memory. I remembered the old woman’s living room. Even the contrails had a sense of doom. It wasn’t possible, but my own physical reaction seemed to function as evidence. Leaning over the sink.


I didn’t feel real.


Some time passed. Next I knew it was 2 PM. I wished Ben was with me. I wished I had told him about the memories that morning. I thought about calling him and asking him to come home. I realized my hands were shaking and I hadn’t eaten anything in hours. I ate a few saltine crackers, then texted Ben and told him I wasn’t feeling well.


He wrote back, Are you okay? Should I leave early?


The relief was immediate. Could you? I’m sorry.


Of course, he wrote.


I got in bed and kept my phone in my hands, messaging Ben constantly as he rode the subway home. Ben was attentive, as always, and texted as he passed each stop. The thought of him getting closer was a tug of comfort; that tension could keep me tethered to the room—the one I was in, not the one I remembered.


When Ben said he was exiting at our stop I got out of bed and waited by the door. He came in sweating, but he did not look terrified, and I was glad, because I was terrified.


He let his bag drop to the floor. “What happened?” he said.


“I just need to talk to you.”


“Tell me, baby. What's wrong?”


“In 2015, a plane went missing in the ocean on its way to Brazil.”


Ben's expression shifted, but he said nothing.


“I think I was on that flight,” I said.


“On the flight?” said Ben, as if he’d never heard the word.


“Yes. That’s why I’m so afraid of flying.”


“That’s what you wanted to tell me?”


“I think… I was in the crash before I woke up.”


“Jane—”


“I remember a suitcase that was on the flight. Or, it was supposed to be. This morning I remembered. I should have told you. The suitcase wasn’t loaded on the plane, I saw it online. And they never found wreckage.”


“I know the story,” Ben said. He didn’t look me in the eye. “There were pictures of the people on board.”


“No!” I said, reining myself in so as not to sound hysterical. Because I hadn’t looked at the victims’ photos, I was too disturbed. “Not all of them. I wasn’t supposed to be on the flight. I was on standby and they didn’t check me in correctly. And they never found the crash, so there was no way to prove I was on board.”


“They have a list, a procedure or whatever, for standby passengers.”


“It could have malfunctioned.”


“Your family would have found out.”


“I might have been estranged from them. Or maybe they’re all dead.”


“Do you think we should call Dr. Garcia?” he said after a moment. He had the low-voiced good intention, the subtle condescension, of the keeper of a lunatic. Or the kind of bad parent I always imagined I might have had.


“I’m not calling anyone,” I said.


“Jane,” he said. He took my hands and I allowed myself to be led to the couch. We sat and he cupped his hands around mine.


“I know this is hard,” he said. “But we’ve been through this. With the other ones. How could you be on a lost flight from England in 2015, and then show up on a train in New York a year later? It’s impossible.”


“I don’t like how you talked to me,” I said.


“I’m sorry,” Ben said.


My heart slowed to its natural rhythm. Suddenly all I wanted was to feel better. As I thought through my assumptions, I could see that they had been deduced on the thinnest possible reasoning. The problem was simply that the more I thought about it, the more I applied those visions to the images I’d seen in connection with Flight 1016. The memory of my memories had shifted to match. A simple enough trick of the mind. The memories themselves, hours old by now, were much too vague to lead to any conclusion.


“Maybe tomorrow,” I said after a moment. “We can call Dr. Garcia.”



Ben and I watched TV for an hour and I started to feel more real. We had even created some kind of romantic energy between us—I liked the security I felt when he intervened and had a pleasant influence over me. Before we went to the bedroom to act on this, I grabbed my phone to close all the tabs and turn it off. Turning it off felt like a stand against the way I’d spent my Thursday.


One of the tabs was the article about the victims of Flight 1016. As the page reloaded, an ad appeared, and I had to scroll to find the subtle “X” that would remove it. When I closed the ad, I was in the middle of the page and a photo stared back at me. A woman—posing with a smile, elbows planted on a metal table, her face cupped in robust hands.


Claire Hyde, 31 / Bristol, England





Mariah Eppes is a writer in New York City. More of her work can be found around the internet and at birdbyrocket.com. She's on Twitter and Instagram.