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.”
“Funny,” Corey said in an astringent tone. “When I’m with you, I don’t miss Janice at all. The mere sound of your voice is like music.”
Joe emitted a rueful laugh. “Yeah, I know. Let me see that picture again.”
Corey laid the picture on the bar, a snapshot of his wife holding Kara. Solemnly contemplating a cake with five candles, his daughter looked taller than the four-year-old Corey had last seen, and Corey detected the first intimation of her mother’s grace and beauty. As for Janice, she looked lovelier than ever; perhaps only Corey saw the rebuke in her unsmiling eyes, or knew that she had her reasons.
“Lookers,” Joe said, “both of them. But it hurts to look at mine sometimes—Janie and Maxwell are the best wife and kid on earth, and I can’t hug or kiss either one of them.” Flashing a crooked grin, Joe added, “Sometimes at night that really hurts.”
Though Corey smiled in appreciation, he felt a certain disquiet and, he admitted, a wholly unearned envy. He still wanted Janice; she seemed to still want him. But, more often than not, when they made love her soul seemed elsewhere. And all too often his daughter seemed a stranger to him, an extension of her mother.
As close as he felt to Joe, Corey chose to speak only of Kara. “I’m gone too much, I guess. Sometimes she barely seems to know me.”
Usually, the mention of kids would prompt Joe to extol the miracle of child development that was Maxwell Fitts—his humor, his quickness, his astounding rhetorical gifts. But Joe was a sensitive man. With the shrewd gaze that sometimes made him seem preternaturally old, he quietly answered, “It’ll come, pal. Time is all you need.” He paused, then added with a certain twitchiness, “I’m tired of waiting here for this goddamned war to happen. High time they gave us the order to dust these turkeys so we can get back to the folks we love.”
Beneath the words, Corey detected an unspoken fear. “No sweat,” he assured his navigator. “Once this starts, you’ll be hugging Janie quicker than it takes us to down the next three Scotches.”
Solemnly, the two friends drank to that. The Gulf War lasted little more than a month. For Corey Grace and Joe Fitts, all but the last day was a breeze.
The two men functioned seamlessly. Without compunction, Corey shot down three Iraqi planes, affirming that he loved the thrill of aerial combat. And when the head of the Iraqi air force tried to escape to Iran in a Russian-made MiG, it seemed right that Corey and Joe got the orders to shoot him down. The only trick was catching General Hussein Al-Malik before he reached Iranian airspace.
They rocketed through an electric blue sky at Mach 1.1, so fast that there was no sensation of speed. The tension lay in the tasks they had to juggle in split seconds—checking the radar; listening to the AWACS report how much closer Al-Malik was to the border; monitoring how much fuel they had burned. The balance of those factors could be a matter of life and death. The mighty jet burned thousands of pounds of fuel in a minute: once all that remained was 7,500 pounds—“bingo fuel”—their choice would be to go home or crash in the desert.
The two men were in a cocoon surrounded by endless blue sky, divorced from time and space. Though they could not see the Iraqi’s MiG, they were nearly as close to his jet, the AWACS told him, as it was to the Iranian border.
“We’re going to get this bastard,” Corey said.
Joe watched the fuel gauge. “Twelve thousand pounds,” he reported calmly. “We’ve got maybe four minutes.”
Al-Malik was three minutes from Iranian airspace. “Time enough,” Corey answered.
Moments passed with no Iraqi in sight. “Ten thousand pounds,” Joe said more tautly. “We’re burning fuel way faster than we should.”
Corey shook his head. “The gauge has gotta be messed up.”
“Maybe. But I think there’s a fuel leak, Corey.”
Corey felt his muscles strain, as though willing their plane to go faster than it could. “We’ll get him,” he repeated.
Suddenly, a speeding gray sliver glinted in the sun: Al-Malik, seconds from Iranian airspace. No longer calm, Joe called out, “We’re at bingo fuel—time to turn around.”
Corey kept going. “Ten seconds.”
“Come on, man,” Joe said tightly.
Corey counted down from ten, then pushed the button on their radar-guided missile.
In a split second the sliver was replaced by an enormous explosion, and General Al-Malik turned to particles of humanity above the Iranian border.
Corey spun the plane around.
It was a minute before Joe spoke again. “Four thousand pounds,” he said softly. “For sure it’s a leak. We’re going to have to bail.”
Corey grimaced. But there was no time for regrets. “You first,” he ordered.
The cockpit opened, and Joe was gone.
Seconds later Corey bailed from the jet, plummeting headlong in a crazy free fall before the chute deployed. The parachute opened, catching air in its billows and slowing Corey’s fall to a still-precipitous descent. Beneath him jagged rocks grew larger at daunting speed.
Corey jerked the wires. Too late, he realized. His feet hit rock, and then his right shoulder landed with a sickening crunch, shooting a jolt of nausea through his body. When his head hit rock, Corey blacked out.
He regained consciousness in a daze. Blinking, he saw that he was surrounded by a ragged contingent of Iraqi soldiers, and that the sun was slanted at the angle of late afternoon. Corey saw no officers—the soldier who stepped forward had a nonmilitary stubble, and his eyes betrayed a fatigue akin to madness.
Corey’s broken shoulder throbbed. The man stood over him, holding a rifle with both hands.
“Speak English?” Corey rasped.
The man did not answer. With an odd detachment, he grasped his rifle by the barrel, raised it over his head, and brought it crashing down on Corey’s left shoulder.
Writhing in pain, Corey asked through gritted teeth, “Where’s my navigator?”
The man held out his right arm, silently pointing. “Suicide,” the Iraqi said in English. “This black man had no courage.”
On a flat rock lay the severed head of Corey’s friend, the sole witness to his fatal error of judgment. The month that followed changed Corey Grace forever.
His captors kept him somewhere underground, in a darkness so profound that he lost any sense of time or place. The only relief from blindness was when they fed or tortured him.
Their technique was primitive but effective: using ropes as a makeshift harness, then hanging him by his broken shoulders until he screamed with pain or passed out from torment and exhaustion. His clothes stank of urine and feces. If Corey could have killed himself, he would have.
At some point one of his faceless tormentors put something, a stool or box, beneath his feet. Later an unseen hand removed the stool and plunged Corey back into agony. The pattern repeated itself, and then again; Corey began to grasp that someone had chosen to perform this secret act of mercy.
But it was not enough. For hours his mind stopped reasoning, and sleeplessness exploded into madness and hallucinations. Desperately, he focused on his wife and daughter, faces in a snapshot imprinted on his brain. “Please,” he mumbled, though whether to God or Janice or Kara he did not know, “I’ll be better . . .”
He began to lose all feeling in his shoulders and arms—and, perhaps, their function. With his last reserves, Corey steeled himself to resist whatever the Iraqis would demand—a taped confession, or information about a weapons system, or some other act of betrayal. Then an even more terrible fear seeped into his consciousness: perhaps his captors wanted nothing more from him than what they were already getting. Deprived of any purpose but survival, Corey felt insanity filling a darkness in which his only sensation was pain, its only relief the dubious act of mercy that was keeping him alive to become subhuman.
Instead, they freed him. The prisoner exchange took place in a blur. His captors were a rogue element of a disintegrating army, Corey learned; the Iraqis who found and freed him offered vague apologies but otherwise told him nothing. His return to America occurred in a twilight of sleep and exhaustion until, at last, he felt a different Corey Grace occupying his shattered body.
The humor revived, but his careless élan was muted by a deep, unsparing self-appraisal. And the bleakest aspect of this honesty involved Joe Fitts.
In a moment of vainglory, he had traded his friend’s life for the chance to kill an Iraqi general. Miserable, he wished he could have those split seconds back, even as he faced another bitter truth: the primal Corey who had survived would not have traded his own life for Joe’s. But the pledge with which Corey tried to salve his conscience—that he would imbue the rest of his life with meaning—struck him as a pathetic, even narcissistic way of seeking redemption for the death of a better man.
He could say this to no one. As Corey convalesced at Walter Reed Hospital, Janice treated him with an unvarying kindness that felt to Corey like an act of will. For Corey’s part, his penance to his wife lay not in professions of love, promises of change, or gratuitous confessions of infidelity, but a new resolve to see her with clarity and compassion. But what he glimpsed in her kept him from speaking of Joe Fitts: the impeccable consideration with which Janice treated him was not informed by love. She could not even speak the word.
Perhaps, Corey thought, time would heal them, just as it might transform the solemn five-year-old who stood by his bedside into a girl who adored her father. But time was the one thing he had too much of: though his arms and shoulders would function adequately, doctors assured him, Captain Corey Grace would never fly again.
Beyond his family, and self-reflection, Corey was a man without a purpose.
Joe Fitts never left him. Corey dictated letters to Joe’s parents, his wife, and even to the five-year-old Maxwell, hoping that, as the boy grew older, Corey’s words would bring his father to life. Each letter, an affectionate accounting of Joe and of his stories of their family, was as comprehensive as Corey could make it in all but one respect: the nature of Joe’s death, and the reason for it. “All of you,” he wrote, “helped make Joe the happiest person I ever expect to know.”
Corey revealed his secret to no one. He wondered if that meant there was no one to say it to; or that the permutations of Joe’s death were too profound to speak; or that he was simply afraid for anyone to know the truth. Life had given Corey a pass he could no longer give himself—and, it turned out, life kept on doing so.
The president gave him a medal. There was also a medal for Joe, of course.
Joe’s parents came to the White House with Janie and Maxwell. When Janie met Corey, she embraced him fiercely, as though to reclaim some part of her husband. Gazing up at him, Janie’s eyes were moist. “Joe loved you, you know.”
Corey tried to smile. “And he loved you more than life. He talked about both of you so much that it was like I was living in your home.” He glanced over at Maxwell and saw the boy holding his grandmother’s hand—the only child of her only child. “Will he be all right?”
Pensive, Janie considered her son. “In time, I think—there’s a lot of love in his life. Every night I read your letter to him.” Facing Corey, she added quietly, “That was a kind thing you did for Maxwell, giving him a father who was both a hero and a man. Though the world of a five-year-old’s a funny place: right now the hero is more important than the man. When he leaves here wearing Joe’s medal, he may believe for a time that was worth the trade.”
At this moment, and for every moment until the ceremony was over, Corey wished himself off the face of the earth.
Instead, he kissed Janie Fitts on the forehead and, despite the pain in his shoulders, scooped Maxwell up in his arms. Then, for once, Corey tried to take refuge in his family.
The three adults had come—his wife, mother, and father. And Clay was there, a slim, eager boy of fifteen whose reticence in their parents’ presence was outshone by his worship of Corey and his wonder at finding himself in the White House. As the Grace family clustered together in the Map Room, Clay showed an instinctive touch with Kara, eliciting the smiles she seldom granted her father. But the others, Janice and Corey’s parents, milled about like strangers awaiting a train that had somehow been delayed.
When the president appeared, he was accompanied by General Cortland Lane, the first African-American to become air force chief of staff.
A lanky patrician who was himself a decorated flier, the president was both gracious and very human. But Corey was just as taken with General Lane. His unmistakable air of command was leavened by a gaze that was penetrating but warm, and his understated manner seemed less military than spiritual—reflecting, perhaps, Lane’s reputation for a religious devotion as deep as it was unostentatious. Whatever its elements, Lane’s force of character drew Corey to him with a swiftness that was rare.
Drawing Corey aside, Lane congratulated him, speaking in a soft voice that was almost intimate. “I’m sorry about your injuries. And about Captain Fitts.”
“So am I,” Corey answered. “More about Joe. Sort of makes you wonder if getting Al-Malik was worth it.”
Lane gave him a long look. “Never stop wondering. It’s the cost of being human.” Pausing, he added quietly, “A fuel leak, the report said.”
“You’re lucky to be alive.” Touching Corey’s elbow, he said, “I should spend time with Joe’s family—”
“Sir,” Corey said impulsively, “there’s something I need to tell you.”
Lane nodded, watching Corey’s eyes. “What is it, Captain?”
“I’m no hero. I was like some idiot kid who had to win a video game.” Corey paused. “That fuel leak—Joe saw it before I shot down Al-Malik. He wanted me to turn around.”
Lane showed no surprise. “I’d guessed as much,” he said quietly. “But what do you think I should do with that fact? Or, more important, what would you like to do with it?”
Corey shook his head. “I don’t know.”
“Then let me suggest what you should do—and not do. What you should do is accept this medal, and then pay Joe Fitts as gracious a tribute as you can muster.” Glancing toward Maxwell Fitts, Lane’s voice was quieter yet. “And what you should not do is force his family to swap a hero for a bitter realization.
“You made a judgment in split seconds—that’s what we ask pilots to do in war. Then we ask you to live with that. But no one else can tell you how.”
Briefly, the general rested a hand on Corey’s shoulder, and then turned to greet Joe’s family. Opening the ceremony, the president spoke with genuine appreciation, commemorating Joe, lauding Corey, and emphasizing their country’s gratitude. When it was Corey’s turn to speak, he gathered himself, and then expressed his thanks to the president, the military, and the parents, wife, and daughter to whom he had returned.
“I’m lucky for many reasons,” he concluded simply. “But I was luckiest of all to know Joe Fitts—not just to have seen his courage, but to have felt the depth of his appreciation for the sacrifice of his mother and father, and for the gift of Janie and Maxwell.” Turning to Joe’s family, he said, “All of you made him the man that all of us will always love: a man who personifies all that makes our country—whatever its imperfections—worth loving.”
Afterward, shrewdly eyeing Corey, the president murmured, “You may have a future in my business, Corey. You could even wind up living here.”
Later, in the suite the air force had reserved for them, Corey repeated this to Janice. “Generous,” he concluded. “And preposterous.”
For a moment, she regarded him in silence. “Is it? I was watching
“It was all a blur, Janice. I’m not sure what you mean.”
She gave him the faintest of smiles. “That’s it, Corey. You don’t ever appear to know, even when I suspect you do. Other people see you as someone who just is.”
Corey clasped her shoulders, looking down at her intently. “What I care about is how you see me. I’m not the same, Janice. And one important difference is that I value you the way I always should have.”
Janice’s smile vanished. “Me?” she asked. “Or just the idea of me?”
Corey could not answer.
That night they made love slowly, as though trying to draw feeling from their every touch. Afterward, lying in the dark, Janice said quietly, “I can feel it coming, Corey. They’re going to give you something else to care about.”
Within a month, a delegation of Republicans came to ask whether Corey Grace, the hero, had any interest in running for the Senate from his home state of Ohio. Copyright © 2007 by Richard North Patterson. All rights reserved.