In the timeless dark of his captivity, before the president made him a hero for the careless act that had cost a friend his life, Captain Corey Grace distracted himself from guilt and the pain of torture by recalling why he had wished to fly: to escape from darkness to light.
His earliest memories were of the metaphoric prison of his parents’ joyless house: the way his father’s mute and drunken rage turned inward on itself; his mother’s tight-lipped repression of her own misery, as clenched as her coiled hair. Even the Ohio town they lived in, Lake City, felt cramped—not just the near-identical shotgun houses and postage-stamp lawns, but the monochromatic lives of those who never seemed to leave, the gossip one could never erase, the pointless bigotry against minorities no one had ever met. Only in captivity, when shame and belated charity eroded his contempt for his family and his past, did Corey see this pitiless lens as yet another reflection of his vanity.
You’re special, they had always told him: teachers, coaches, ministers—even, in their crabbed ways, Corey’s own mother and father. From his early youth, good looks had been among his many gifts: the ready smile and dark brown eyes—perceptive, alert, and faintly amused—strong but regular features, arrayed in pleasing proportion to one another. He excelled in school; became captain of three sports teams; grew articulate and quick-witted in a way he could not trace to either parent; learned to conceal his alienation with an easy charm that made girls want him and other boys want to be like him. His parents were strangers—not just to Corey, but to each other.
“I wonder who you’ll marry,” his mother had mused aloud on the night of his senior prom.
Needlessly fussing over his tuxedo tie—as open a gesture of maternal fondness as she could muster—Nettie Grace looked up into his face. With an instinctive fear that, somehow, this life would ensnare him, Corey realized that his mother still wished to imagine him marrying someone from Lake City—maybe Kathy Wilkes, the bubbly cheerleader who was his prom date. Perhaps his mother spoke from sentiment, Corey thought; perhaps it was only fear that he would leave their life behind. Even his parents’ pride in him seemed sullied by their own resentments.
Gazing into his mother’s eyes, he answered softly, “No one from here.”
Nettie Grace let go of his bow tie.
Slowly, Corey looked around the tiny living room, as if at a place he would never see again. His father stared at the television, a beer bottle clutched in hands knotted from his work as a plumber. In the corner, Corey’s five-year-old brother, Clay—whose very existence conjured images Corey could scarcely entertain—gazed up at Corey with a child’s admiration. Looking at this slight boy’s tousled brown hair and innocent blue eyes, Corey felt the empathy he wished he could summon for his parents. He already sensed that Clay—who, to his father’s evident satisfaction, did not seem all that special—would never escape their family.
Impulsively, Corey scooped Clay up in his arms, tossing him in the air before bringing the boy’s face close to his. Clay wrapped his arms around Corey’s neck.
“I love you, Corey,” he heard his little brother declare.
For a moment, Corey held Clay tight; then he lifted him aloft again, wondering why his own smile did not come quite so easily. “Yeah,” he told his brother. “I love you, too. Even though you’re short.”
Putting Clay down, Corey kissed him on the forehead, and left without another word to anyone.
He was leaving them all behind—his mother and father; the friends who thought they knew him; the prom date who would offer to sleep with him in hope that this moment, the apex of her youthful imaginings, was a beginning and not the end; even his kid brother. And he had known this ever since Coach Jackson had named him starting quarterback. “You’re slow,” the coach had told him laconically. “And your arm’s no better than average. But you’re smart, and you don’t rattle. Most of all, you’re not just a leader—you’re a born leader.”
This, Corey realized, was a new thought. Curious, he asked, “What’s the difference?”
“You never look back to see who’s following you.” The coach cocked his head, as though studying Corey from a different angle. “Ever think about one of the academies? West Point, maybe.”
Mulling this, Corey walked home on a brisk fall day. Then he looked up and saw a jet plane soaring into endless space and light, its only mark a trail of vapor. No, Corey thought, not West Point.
His appointment to the Air Force Academy came as easily as his moment of departure. He left his parents and brother at the airport after constricted hugs and awkward silences, troubled only by how small and solitary Clay suddenly appeared to him.
It was the first time Corey Grace had ever flown.
The Academy, too, came easily, as did flight school and promotion. By the time of the Gulf War, Captain Corey Grace was stationed in Saudi Arabia, restlessly awaiting the ultimate test of his abilities: to engage Iraqi pilots at supersonic speeds with such skill that he would kill without being killed.
To Corey, his F-15 was an extension of his gifts, a perfectly crafted machine with the technology in its sinews ready to do his every bidding. The only other human variable was his navigator.
Joe Fitts was a black man from Birmingham, Alabama. When Corey first met him he almost laughed in dismay—Joe’s toothy smile and jug ears made him look, in Corey’s reluctant but uncharitable estimate, like a guileless and even comic figure, and his loose-limbed gait suggested that he was held together by rubber bands. But, for Corey, their first flight transformed his navigator’s appearance.
Joe’s mind was as keen as his eyes: he seemed to know everything there was to know about his job—and Corey’s. A few more flights together confirmed Corey’s sense of a man whose judgment was as close to perfect as mortals could achieve; a few sessions at the bar built for thirsty officers suggested that Joe was a complicated but altogether stellar human being. And that Joe was the first black man Corey had known well confronted him with a basic truth: that whatever Corey thought of his youth in Lake City, he had been, in one very basic sense, privileged.
Joe’s father was a janitor, his mother a seamstress, and their lives were molded by a time and place where the insane logic of bigotry skipped no details, right down to separate drinking fountains to keep blacks from sullying whites. Joe’s parents were first allowed to vote in 1965, the year after he was born, filled with foreboding that this reckless act might leave their child an orphan. But though they were even more lightly educated than Corey’s parents, Joe’s pride in his father and mother was as deep as his love—they had wrung from the harsh strictures of their lives the fierce determination to give Joe Fitts chances they had only dreamed of. The sole fissure between Joe and his devoutly Baptist parents was one that he concealed from them: except when he was home, Joe never went to church.
“So you’re an atheist?” Corey asked one evening.
Sitting beside Corey at the bar, Joe sipped his Scotch, regarding the question with narrow eyes. “Atheism’s too much trouble,” he answered. “Why put that level of energy into something you can’t know? Anyone who tells you they’re sure that there is a God—or isn’t one—is smoking dope.
“Anyhow, it’s the wrong question. Maybe there is a God, and he’s a terrific guy—or girl, or hermaphrodite, or whatever the fuck people want to believe. I’ve got no objections to that. What pisses me off is when people think believing in a certain God gives them a license to crap on other people, or even kill ’em—Christian or Muslim, it makes no difference.” He turned to Corey. “Ever look at those old pictures of lynchings—upright white folks with their good day’s work hanging from some tree?”
“Notice anything peculiar about them?”
“Yeah. The black guy was dead.” Corey paused, then ventured, “No women?”
“Look again—in high school I made a study of them. What you’ll notice is that a lot of those mobs were dressed in their Sunday best. They were fresh from church, you see.” Joe’s half smile conveyed both wonder and dismay. “I’ve met some true Christians, and I’ve also met some nasty fuckers whose God is surely created in their image. Overall, I’d say the correlation between godliness and goodness is kind of random. Sort of makes you wonder what history would look like if more folks had believed a little less.”
But such moody ruminations did not detract from Joe’s pleasure in the core of his life—a deep pride in a job well done, and an abiding love for his wife and four-year-old son. “You know why I don’t want to die?” Joe admitted over drinks. “Not ’cause I’m afraid that it’s the end—that all I’ll be is roadkill. It’s because of all I’d miss, and all they’d miss about me. It’s bad enough just being stuck with you in this fucking bar.”...