A Promised Land via the Central Pacific

A Promised Land via the Central Pacific by Neal Hammons

On January 12, 2015, after my wife Ava got the call telling her that my TransPacific Airways flight from Honolulu to Pago Pago had crashed, she dropped herself onto the sofa and watched The Wendy Williams Show. Wendy talked for twenty minutes about a rapper who had been arrested at LAX for having a samurai sword in his carry-on bag, and the rest of the show featured an actress talking about her new motherhood podcast and cosmetics line. As the audience whoop-whooped during the Wendy Williams Show closing credits, Ava called her sister Tessa, who immediately drove from Cleveland to our house in Pittsburgh. All that week, Tessa, six-and-a-half-months pregnant, huddled as close to Ava as she could during the day, slept next to her at night, and bathed her with the detachable showerhead on a few of the mornings. Tessa prayed with Ava and handled all the telephone calls to and from relatives and occasionally barked reproaches at representatives from TransPacific, from my employer ClassiCom, and from the life insurance companies. 

“Nobody’s ever prepared for this,” Tessa once said to her husband on the phone, thinking she was out of Ava’s earshot. “Not even her. You can’t plan for what this does to you.”

Ava stayed on the couch most of the time, wrapped in a gray fleece blanket that we kept on the armrest during the winters. After she didn’t eat for two days, Tessa forced her to drink a kale blueberry smoothie. On the day of my memorial service, Ava vomited twice in the morning and then felt better by the time she walked up the steps of our church. 

But my wife never told me these things. I read about them. A week before I returned to Pittsburgh as a plane-crash and desert-island survivor—on June 19, 2017, two years and five months after my departure—my wife published a short memoir in the anthology Chicken Soup for the Under-40 Tragically Widowed Single-Mother’s Soul. She wrote about the days after Tessa left to go back to Cleveland, about how Ava herself briefly entered the workforce, how she secured and then quit a job at the chaotic Allstate office, how she would only wake up to watch Wendy Williams every morning and then go back to sleep, how when she woke up later in the afternoon she would cry because it wasn’t morning and it wasn’t time to watch Wendy Williams again and she couldn’t think of what else she was supposed to do. This particular Chicken Soup volume was not a critical success, but her friends—our friends—all felt relieved that Ava had been able to finally acknowledge her vulnerability and devastation in such a non-self-destructive way.

I wasn’t as supportive. Her memoir had been included in the Chicken Soup collection despite three glaring ineligibilities.

1. Ava was not a widow at the time of publication.

2. Ava was not single at the time of publication, having already married a man named Garrett, identified in the memoir itself as a widower/friend-of-a-friend who told her that “sitting still causes us to be swept under by guilt over the disappeared.”

3. Ava was not a mother at the time of publication, though she was seven months pregnant with Garrett’s child.

In her defense, Ava did qualify for the under-40 requirement. She was 32 years old. I was 41, but the Chicken Soup editors had no age restrictions for the dead husband.

The trip had been from Pittsburgh to Pago Pago with connecting flights in Los Angeles and Honolulu. My employer—ClassiCom, an electronics repair company that services telecom equipment no longer supported by the manufacturer—sent me on that trip in January 2015 to deliver live training to our Pago Pago technicians and shipping personnel, who had been responsible for a high product-loss rate (nearly 35%) the previous two quarters. Even with a staff of minimum-wage technicians, the Samoan branch was at risk of being closed if there was no improvement within the calendar year.

I was rarely required to travel for work. Ava and I had agreed that our kids would never wonder if we cared about work more than we cared about them. But six-plus years after our 2008 wedding, there still weren’t any kids, and I was having regular after-hours conference calls. Out-of-date telecom equipment needs to be repaired and replaced frequently, and a lot of telecom and internet services in developing countries still run on that stuff, so it’s always an emergency when it breaks.

Ava hated my job. Not the work itself, but the time and the focus I had to give on the days when everything went wrong. Once, when I was tired after a late conference call with a Sierra Leonian ISP’s tech support manager, Ava almost cried during a DVRed episode of The Voice because she didn’t feel that we were watching TV “together.” Sometimes I wondered if Ava would be happier if she spent a few days of the week working at Macy’s or volunteering at an animal shelter, anything to expand her focus beyond our house and waiting on the children who would fill its rooms.

Todd and I had known where we were because of the island’s salt-stained, guano-streaked sign: “Baker Island—National Wildlife Refuge—US Fish and Wildlife Services.” 

The island was just over a mile long from east to west, about three-quarters of a mile north to south. A fifty-foot-wide, World War II–era runway spanned most of the east-to-west length of the island, though the runway’s perforated steel was now rusted and overgrown with grass and shrubs. Five wooden radio towers (without the radios) stood on the east end of the island. The P-40 wreckage of a few crash landings still littered the place, and red-tailed tropicbirds and red-footed boobies nested in the shade of the remaining wreckage. In the northeast section of the island, there were knee-high concrete remnants from the walls of military buildings that had been bulldozed decades ago. There were no trees, only grass and brush, so the 17-foot-tall, non-functioning lighthouse on the west end was our only source of shade. Todd and I lived inside that brick lighthouse’s cramped interior, five feet in diameter.

Todd had been flying to American Samoa to climb both Mount Aliva and Rainmaker Mountain. 

“I’ve climbed all the mountains in the States,” he said, “at least all of them that interest me. I was meant to move, boy. This was going to be it, my last mountains. Well, some of my last. Because nowadays when my body protests, I’m old enough I have to listen.”

After the crash Todd had dragged me out of the water and up onto the shore of sand and coral rubble. Before I could transition from survival shock to exile panic, Todd talked me through the S-U-R-V-I-V-A-L protocol he learned early in his mountain-climbing days: Size up the situation, Undue haste makes waste, Remember where you are, etc. He put himself in charge of fire and water, which left me responsible for food. Todd said he could fish but wasn’t really a hunter. I wasn’t a hunter either, I told him, but I would figure it out. 

We ate nothing but hermit crabs for the first week. Todd didn’t seem to mind. During our dinners, he sat next to me and watched the foam slide up the sand and then slip back into the ocean. He acted as if he were seeing exactly what he expected to see. At the end of that first week, when my arms were covered in clawmarks and I was determined never to eat another hermit crab, I told Todd about Ava and her concerns regarding my overattention to work and what I thought she needed to do—get out of the house and stop concentrating so hard on getting pregnant. 

“Why didn’t you tell her that?” he asked. “See what she says.”

“She’ll think I’m implying that she’s not doing anything at home. It’ll make her more upset.”

“At least you wouldn’t be pandering. You make it sadder when you pander.” 

Todd nodded toward the bright sky in front of us, a blue so bare and immense that it could have crushed us. On the east end of the island, near the radio towers, swarms of white-underwinged sooty terns circled and squawked at each other.

The next day I caught my first bird, a three-foot-long great frigatebird, a slender black seabird with a red pouch that puffed up like a balloon below its bill. I tried to break its neck by twisting its head sideways and the bird screeched and flew away cartwheeling through the air and splashed down in the shallow tide. It had drowned by the time I reached the water.

I saved that bird’s hooked bill and used it a few times as a blade to cut through the feathers of other birds, all of which tasted much better than the best hermit crab. By the time the bill broke, I’d found a metal scrap elsewhere on the island, and that worked much better.

In January 2014, a year before my flight, when Ava turned 29 (and I was 38), we began trying to have a baby. 

“It’s finally happening,” she said, hugging me in the kitchen. “Everybody will finally stop asking.”

Together that evening, we cooked spaghetti with roasted squash and mushrooms and covered it with a jar of garlic marinara sauce. The dinner was simple like our dinners in college, when Ava had to tell me how to prepare every single ingredient because I couldn’t even chop onions correctly. After putting a loaf of Italian bread in the oven, I opened a bottle of Riesling.

“Let’s enjoy this now”—I brushed a finger across her stomach—“while you can.”

As we talked and laughed and drank another bottle during dinner, I was relieved the moment had arrived. That night in our bedroom, she raised her eyebrows and shrieked a little as she climbed onto me, and we both laughed because the two bottles of wine had thrown off our balance.

In September 2014, eight months into our efforts and Ava still not pregnant, her sister Tessa called us to announce she was having twins, a boy and a girl. Tessa’s first child was a nice but not overly impressive boy named James, who had slept in a crib until age five and was now earning Bs and Cs in second grade. Tessa and Ava had planned out how they would both have babies together this time, and those babies would get to have a cousin of the same age, in the same grade, something that James unfortunately never had. Now, I worried, maybe Tessa would have both the babies herself.

“We’re just—” I said to Tessa over the phone. “I’m so happy for you.”

“Really take care of Ava, will you?” Tessa said. “These babies are going to need their aunt. I’ll be praying for all of us, you guys, too.”

I didn’t hear envy in Ava’s voice when she talked about it. She congratulated Tessa, found her a 4-in-1 convertible crib online (the previous crib having collapsed under James’s five-year-old weight), and e-mailed her ideas for baby-shower venues and decorations. There was no reluctance or exhaustion in Ava’s movements when she did yoga in front of the TV or when she looked over the bills at the kitchen table. As far as our own pregnancy, she had already mapped out a tentative four- to six-year plan. She had made an appointment with a fertility expert for the day after her 30th birthday, a year after we began trying, and she had sent an introductory e-mail to the coordinator of the local infertility support group, which met at Dave & Busters on the second Thursday of each month, to alert them to our future attendance. Ava’s plan accounted for the least-intrusive fertility treatments, one round of IUI, the first round of IVF, time to save up for the second round of IVF, how old I would be at each of these points—because Ava distrusted any of my sperm after age 39—and months-long stretches for us to decide between a third round of IVF or adoption. If we chose adoption, she’d written ????? to indicate the time we’d need to mourn the loss of our own potential biological children. 

I was thankful Ava was keeping us on track, but the plans forced a sense of urgency into our sex lives. On the nights when everything was working, when Ava gripped my head and looked into my eyes as I was about to come inside of her, there was an imperative in the eye contact. Make it happen this time, or later on, This has to work, or finally, Please

I knew not to suggest that we go on a cruise, because that’s in all the brochures as something not to say. So, on December 11, 2014, one month before Ava’s 30th birthday and one month and a day before our scheduled appointment with the fertility expert, I suggested that we have a weekend away to take a break from the stress of having so much sex. I smiled as I said that last part. Ava tightened her lips, nearly into a polite smile. She stopped reading a booklet about semen analysis and stared at her hands.

“But we know it’s not about needing a change of pace,” she said.

“I know, but I think we could still use one,” I said. “I could, at least.”

She nodded, returned to her booklet. “I can look for something online,” she said. “We might be able to get a deal.”

Soon, however, I found out I wouldn’t be around for the appointment with the fertility expert, because I had to leave for Pago Pago the morning after her birthday.

On the day after the storm winds had washed away most of the camp we’d constructed, Todd and I were trying to rebuild with salvaged materials. The noise from the recent storm made the present quiet more pronounced: I only heard the wind, the birds, and the surf crashing over the reefs. I scoured the island again for anything usable. My broken frigatebird beak and metal shard were both gone. I tore off a loose piece of rusted-out runway matting, and I scavenged more stones from the military complex remnants. I couldn’t figure out why we weren’t getting more plane wreckage washing up on shore. So far I’d retrieved a seat cushion and a burned fragment of a tail rudder or maybe part of a wing—it was only a few feet wide, but it was durable enough to decapitate birds and fish and crabs. 

I was scooping sand out of our storm-ravaged fire pit, and Todd was nearby trying to repair our spit. Neither of us wanted to eat raw birds again.

“You ever hear of The Ten Commandments?” Todd asked.

The sand fell through my fingers. “You serious?” I asked.

“I mean the movie.”

“Come on.”

“Well, not everyone your age knows. I always like it until the scene where Pharaoh lived.” He pointed the spit toward the water. “I understand that it’s a movie and Yul Brynner’s a star and you don’t want to drown a star, but that was a pretty big deviation from the source material.”

“Moses got some breaks, too. Heston was probably more impressive than the real Moses.”

By the evening, our fire pit was emptied of excess sand and seaweed and charred hermit crabs. Todd managed to fix the spit by using fragments of bird bones as braces around the stick and then tying it together with feathers. We ended up eating sooty terns that were scorched after the repaired spit broke and the plucked birds dropped into the fire and it took us what must’ve been ten minutes to notice. After putting out the fire, we had to finish our dinner with only the light from a quarter moon.

At that point, according to our count, we’d been on the island for ninety-three days. Lying down at night without Ava next to me made my body ache as if I had the flu. I imagined what she would look like (three months older by this point) and if there would be any emerging lines on her face or graying hair because of my absence. What if, soon after I disappeared and was presumed dead, Ava found out she was four weeks pregnant? The first time I imagined that, I ran out into the ocean during the night and Todd had to wrestle me back from the fringing reef and onto land. The next morning his knee was swollen, and he couldn’t walk for another few days. Later when I pictured Ava pregnant, I silently prayed that God get me back to the contiguous forty-eight states so I could see my wife round and smiling and feel my daughter tossing inside her belly (I imagined a girl). Sometimes Todd would start praying for me, out loud, and I couldn’t always grasp what he was saying because of his insistence on the thous and thees, but I think he was basically on track. He wanted God to take me back home, not for my sake, but for Ava and our unborn children.

I understood Todd’s complaint about The Ten Commandments: the entire Egyptian army drowned in the Red Sea in Exodus (including, presumably, the Pharaoh), so the movie should have had Yul Brynner’s Pharaoh receive that same comeuppance. The way Cecil B. DeMille did it may have been crueler, though. Pharaoh having to watch his entire army die, having to make the trek back to Egypt on his own, walking back to Memphis without anything that made him who he was—a quick death may have been better.

The problems began in December 2014 when our dishwasher broke.

December was already a rough month: I had just told Ava about my trip to Pago Pago, and she still had to finalize the plans for Tessa’s fraternal-twins baby shower. At first, Ava responded as coolly as usual. She kept track of RSVPs, confirmed the reservation for a tea room in a colonial-style hotel, and was especially excited when, after a series of dead-end calls to Bed Bath & Beyond stores throughout the tri-state area, she found a store that had both the blue-shaded and the pink-shaded giraffe lamps for the twins’ nursery.

Then I came home one evening and the kitchen floor was covered with water-logged bath towels. Our two beach towels were rolled up and placed as a border to prevent the runoff from entering the dining room, but my shoes squeaked as I walked across the dining room floor boards. Ava’s shoulders were twitching.

“I turned on the dishwasher at four-thirty,” she said, “like I always do, the exact same settings—and then it was like this, ten minutes later. But so much worse.”

After replacing the seal and the latch that night and replacing the float switch the next day, there was still water dripping out between the door and the access panel. To replace the dishwasher, we’d have to withdraw money from our savings set aside for fertility treatments. 

“Let’s fix what we can,” Ava said. “Buy it. We need something around here to work right.”

I called and scheduled for a new dishwasher to be installed the next week. In the meantime, Ava began getting out of bed during the night. I once woke up at 3 a.m. to the squeaks of her cleaning the bathroom mirror. After I returned home from work, I would find her not yet finished with dusting the ceiling fan blades or vacuuming the rugs, which had always been part of her morning routine. She stopped updating me on plans for Tessa’s boy-and-girl baby shower. For the first time since we’d been married, there were plates piled up in the sink.

One day I came home and found her wearing pajamas and slouched in front of the television. 

“I’m not going,” she said. “I told Tessa I’m not going to the shower. I was trying, but…I can’t do it.”

I sat next to her on the floor. We held hands and prayed and talked about Hannah and Sarah and other women in the Bible who had been through similar ordeals—the need to be with a person who never arrives. Then I tried to help her see how, even though we were having problems ourselves, that it didn’t mean we couldn’t be happy for someone else. Those two feelings could exist separately. We didn’t need to have a child before we could be happy for other parents. And Tessa would be heartbroken if her sister didn’t come to her baby shower. Besides, we already paid for the plane ticket.

“You don’t think I’m happy for her?” she asked. 

“No, no,” I said, “I’m saying your reaction makes total sense.”

“I am happy for her, and I don’t need it broken down for me why I should be at my own sister’s baby shower. I understand why, I know Tessa is having twins, I know I’m their aunt, I know how much the ticket cost because I’m the one who bought the ticket, and I still can’t go. Not because I’m ‘not happy for her’—”

“I didn’t say you weren’t.”

“—but because I can’t. I want to and I tried and I still can’t.”

December was filled with retreads of that conversation: me trying to explain that I wasn’t dismissing her concerns, Ava responding that my arguments themselves were, in fact, dismissing her concerns. The new dishwasher hummed quietly in the kitchen, the dishes emerged spotless, and the kitchen floors were once again dry enough to walk across without ruining our socks. We only had sex twice that month—once when she was ovulating and once around 4 a.m. after she’d been cleaning the bathroom with the door closed for a while.

In January, after emotional phone calls with her sister, after canceling her flight to the baby shower, Ava drove me to the airport for my flight from Pittsburgh to Pago Pago. Gray and white snow was piled high along the curbs, and streaks of brown slush littered the road. Alongside the curb at the airport terminal, the car’s warm exhaust formed a cloud around the trunk. I yanked my suitcase out of the backseat and kissed Ava through the driver-side window. 

“You’re right,” she said. “It would be good to have a weekend away, in the next month or so. That would be nice for us both, I think.”

Before I stepped through the airport’s automatic-door entrance, I waved at Ava. I had mentioned the weekend away almost a month ago, before the dishwasher, before our discussion about the baby shower. I was so relieved that she agreed with me about anything, even something I had nearly forgotten about, a weight left my body and I almost whimpered. She waved a mittened hand and I think she made a face at me, but I can’t say for certain. By that time, the car was nearly enveloped in its own exhaust cloud.

Following my return after the twenty-nine-month absence, Ava and Garrett were interviewed by a few cable news networks—afternoon interviews, nothing primetime—to give their perspective of my reemergence. They said how unfortunate the whole ordeal had been but everything had a way of working out for the best, for everyone. 

Mostly, though, the attention was on me and Todd. We often ended up answering the questions asked of the other—me explaining how Todd kept me in good spirits, Todd explaining how I killed so many birds and fish. We made jokes off-camera about how the other was always acting as an Aaron to our Moses, as a speaker for a guy who didn’t know what to say. 

Regardless of the interviewer, there were three questions we always heard.

1. What was going through your mind during the crash?

I have one memory from the crash, a two- or three-second snippet: The plane was going to hit the water and I didn’t yell because my voice wouldn’t be heard above the rest of the noise. Then, Todd was standing on the beach of Baker Island and telling me to stand up because I wasn’t dead.

Todd told it differently, though. He said he found himself underwater, separated from the plane but still buckled to his seat. The water above him was on fire. He held his breath as long as he could and swam under the fire and when he came up for air he found me treading water with my eyes closed. After keeping ourselves afloat throughout the night by using our pants as makeshift flotation devices (tying the legs together, filling the pants with air), we crawled onto the shore of Baker Island the next morning.

I’m not sure how much of Todd’s story was made up to keep me from feeling like deadweight—first on the island, then on national television—but I decided to take him at his word.

2. Were you relieved that your desert island was an American territory, at least?

During our Today Show interview, Todd told Matt Lauer that we were both glad to be stranded on an American desert island because we wouldn’t have survived if we’d had to use the metric system. 

3. What did you miss the most?

Todd would talk about his sister and her family who lived in Winchester, Kansas, a city whose biggest employer was a meat-processing plant. According to him, all of Winchester smelled like a combination of fresh and rotting meat, and he could never separate one smell completely from the other. I nodded along when he said that on the island he’d actually started to crave that smell because it would mean he was back with his sister and brother-in-law and nephews.

I only answered the question once. When The Wendy Williams Show returned from summer hiatus, Todd and I were her second guests, following the “Hot Topics” segment and Debra Messing. 

I’m not sure if Ava bothered to watch that day, because she was in the hospital around then (she gave birth five weeks early), but at the time I was certain she would be watching. I was certain that she would hear me tell everyone that I’d missed her more than Todd missed the good meat/bad meat smell of Winchester, Kansas, and that I would have quit my job and lived with her forever inside our exhaust-spouting car at the airport if I’d known things would turn out this way. I was certain Ava would see she had made a mistake.

At the beginning of the interview, Todd and I sat next to Wendy on the pastel couch, and when she moved her legs I heard the whisk of her skirt against her thighs and my hands began tingling. Todd complimented her shoes and the producer immediately cut to the Shoe Cam to show off Wendy’s pointy-toe stilettos. The soft top of Wendy’s foot appeared on every monitor in the building. I tucked my fingers beneath my legs so I wouldn’t reach out for that softness. She leaned forward to adjust the ankle strap on her shoe, and I smelled the coconut scent of her wig. 

I told Wendy that Todd had saved my life by not leaving me alone in the ocean and then kept us alive by desalinating the saltwater. Next, I told her how much I’d missed Ava, told her about the radio towers, told her how I wish I’d never left. And I kept going. Now that I was back and Ava wasn’t here with me, I missed the radio towers because at least with the radio towers I had the promise of Ava and the promise of a chance to make everything better. I felt like Pharaoh but not the real Pharaoh, the Yul Brynner version of Pharaoh. I didn’t have anything left. After I finished, Wendy clutched my wrist with her moisturized, manicured fingers.

Her hand was soothing and electric. I felt as if something were being unzipped in my stomach, in my groin. 

I had thought about Ava every day for twenty-nine months and missed her more than anything, but I realized that if Wendy Williams had shown up on Baker Island after my first few weeks there, I would have killed Todd in order to have Wendy to myself. Todd had saved my life and then kept me alive for years and I loved him for it. And maybe Wendy would have preferred Todd, but I wouldn’t have been able to watch them together while I was alone, killing birds and talking to radio towers and missing Ava so much I woke up shaking every morning. I would have killed myself or Todd (most likely Todd) without hesitation, without worrying about Ava and the children we’d planned to have together. I knew what this should have meant—I should have realized that Ava was in a situation just as desperate as my Wendy-Williams-arrives-on-the-island conundrum, and my hypothetical willingness to probably kill Todd should’ve led me over into a place of understanding and forgiveness regarding Ava’s situation, in which my absence drove her to someone else. But even though I could see that place of understanding and forgiveness from where I sat, I couldn’t convince myself to feel any differently than I did.

“So during ‘Hot Topics’ I was talking about these kids in Newport Beach who are getting these lavish celebration parties after finishing elementary school,” Wendy said. “And I just want to get your perspective, from someone who didn’t have any of this—this noise—around you for two years, more than two years. Do you come back and hear this and just say, ‘What?’”

I haven’t watched the show, but I think I said that I was happy to see bars of soap again. Todd chimed in to pick up the slack—“Boy, we sure needed them out there, didn’t we?”—and I lost it. When I heard his voice, my head dropped onto my knees. I missed Ava so much. I tried not to cry, but when Wendy reached over and put her arm around me and I felt her breasts against my back, I started bawling and I couldn’t stop. Wendy’s voice was quavering. I would have killed Todd, my savior, right then to get Wendy to stay there with me. I would have killed Todd just to spend time with Wendy’s sweater.

They halted the interview and waited until I stopped crying. Wendy went offstage to address her tear-stained makeup. A producer knelt in front of the couch and assured me I wasn’t on an island any longer.

“You’re here with everybody else,” she said. “You’re on dry land, and you’re not going to die.”

I’m going to let my ex-wife tell you about the last time she and I spoke, post-exile, after my Wendy Williams Show crying debacle went viral. I tried to summarize our conversation, but I didn’t do it justice. So I’ll give you the following excerpt that was taken from her self-published memoir “The Clock-Hand Falls Back,” for which she posted links on various social-media pages after it was rejected by the editor of Chicken Soup for the PTSD-Survivor’s Loved One’s Soul due to a variety of trigger-warning concerns. (Full disclosure: I redacted every mention of Garrett from this passage. I could handle the TV interviews, but not the way Ava talks about him here.)

I told my ex-husband that we’d named our daughter Clara after my mother. He nodded at the table top, sipped his coffee. Sometimes he would look at me between sentences, but he looked away when I said my husband’s name. He smiled at the mention of Clara, but there was no joy behind it. I told him that I was writing more memoirs.

“I’m glad you found a distraction,” he said. “Something to get you through this.”

A distraction? He was still an attentive listener who, nevertheless, managed to miss the point.

His former employer had closed its American Samoan branch soon after his disappearance. The company cut most of his department, but he didn’t want to go back anyway, that’s what he told me. After years of me eating dinner alone while he worked in the evening, years of me building and maintaining our home with minimal help from him, years of me having to plan for our family on my own—now he decides to work less? In my current relationship, I had a happiness that far exceeded this former marriage. Garrett and I were each other’s priority, not relish, not like celery on so many hot-wing dishes, which I never had with my ex.

He talked about Baker Island and told me how he’d felt so alone that he couldn’t consider the possibility that I wouldn’t be waiting for him. He told me that once he was in such physical pain from missing me that he wrestled a green sea turtle out of the water and bludgeoned it on the shore. He still resented me for preventing him from ever seeing the biological kids we could have had together, and nothing he’d tried could quell that resentment. Though he began to compare that resentment to the depression I’d experienced before my sister’s baby shower, the comparison was so accusatory that I stopped listening and put all my focus on controlling my facial expression.

There seemed to be more space between us than there actually was. It looked as if I could stick my foot out and nudge his newly bought loafers, but it was impossible. I would take a giant step and still remain a short space away. I would leap at him and tell him how sorry I was that he had been so alone and how sorry I was that he couldn’t share in my happiness over Clara. I would tell him that Garrett reminded me of a more optimistic version of him. But I would never reach him. Apologies mean little to someone you loved who has gone away and, despite indications to the contrary, never come back.

I should mention that she took some liberty with the setting. I don’t drink coffee. The encounter actually happened in a parking lot outside the DMV and auto-title office. I had decided to take a job in Baltimore as a service tech for a telecom company, because if I was ever going to forgive Ava as I knew I should, I needed to be away from Ava and Garrett, whose name I even started redacting in my head. I needed to leave Pittsburgh and enter a new phase of my life. My license, though, had expired a few months after I was presumed dead, so I had to go through a lot of paperwork to get it renewed.

The worst times on Baker Island were those mornings—maybe eight or nine total, over twenty-nine months—when I had to help Todd take care of the water-desalinating duty because he just sat around dead-eyed after breakfast. One of those mornings occurred two days before we were rescued. He was sitting against the lighthouse and wouldn’t look at me as he talked.

“Ever heard of Moses?” he asked.

“You didn’t see him,” I said, “did you?”

Todd shook his head. “I hope to God,” he said, “that this is Egypt and not the wilderness.”

“Somebody will come,” I said.

“It’s been two-and-a-half years. Both of us, we might die before anybody comes.”

“The rest of them already died. At least we’ve had time to figure out what was happening.”

In the afternoon I recited to him a list of all the good things about our life. We were alive. We’d survived a catastrophic airplane crash. We’d found an island without active volcanoes or deadly predators. We got to live with another person. We were both lucky not to be stuck on Baker Island with an unhinged city-dweller who would freak out and try to kill one of us for food. I was lucky to have someone who understood my anxiety about Ava’s anxiety over our infertility, and Todd was lucky to have someone who understood his Moses references. We’d been surrounded by birds for over two years and never contracted a deadly strain of flu. We got to live on the beach. We’d made it more than two years without any tsunamis or other island-leveling phenomena. It didn’t rain as often as you’d think.

Todd got up and walked with me that evening. A flock of Pacific golden plovers waded through the shallow water as the waves swept ashore. When we reached the radio towers, I showed Todd how I talked to Ava every evening. After I finished and walked away, he stayed and told the radio towers about the smell of dead cattle in Kansas. I walked along the sand until I could no longer hear Todd’s sobs and his halting laments about not seeing his sister and not taking his nephews camping as he’d promised. It was July and the sooty terns were rising and leaving the middle of the island in tens of thousands. A pair of sanderlings scurried away as I approached, but most of the shorebirds viewed me as part of the landscape, a natural feature that could not be altered. I hunched down near the shoreline tide, scooped up an armful of tropicbirds and snapped their necks.

Neal Hammons's short stories have appeared in McSweeney's Quarterly Concern and Kenyon Review Online. He graduated from the University of Florida's MFA program for fiction.