For Marielle Wing, the blank page was her enemy, its slick white face always taunting her to prove herself anew, sneering that no words would come, ever—that her true nature was emptiness.
Despite nine published novels, each garnering praise or prizes or both, Marielle still found it punishing to eke out a first draft. She hated the not knowing, that clumsy stage of having to wander and flail, the struggle to bring a world into being.
She’d never had children, never wanted to; that barrenness she embraced, but she’d frequently likened the first draft process to labor—excruciating, protracted, and bloody. It was in subsequent drafts that she became a sculptor of language and ideas, an architect of plot, a weaver of character and theme. Marielle was currently stuck on chapter seven of the first draft of a new novel, and it was making her cranky.
But everything was making her cranky today, as she stood in an interminable line at the American Airlines ticket counter at JFK. In the cab on her way to the airport she’d taken a call from her attorney; the option on her last novel, The Time Before the Last Time, had lapsed, and the film company was not going to renew. The PEN America event that had brought her from temperate Los Angeles to New York in the dead of February had been a listless affair, even though she’d been the keynote speaker; all anyone in her industry could talk about was the death of publishing. Even as she’d gamely delivered her prepared address about “the freedom of speech,” she couldn’t help but wonder, what good was speech if no one was listening anymore? Then, at the dinner, she’d been stuck sitting next to the man who had won the Pulitzer for fiction last year, her Pulitzer—the first time she’d been nominated, and she’d deserved to win. But she hadn’t won, and the dance of appearing to be gracious while the winner appeared to be humble had sparked her umbrage anew.
The airport was crowded with people taking advantage of the three-day weekend—Presidents’ Day, whatever that meant. Most people could no longer tell you which presidents the day was intended to honor. New York in February had never been her idea of a good time, and she was irritable from the frigid, slippery streets and the overheated rooms and the bristly competitiveness that charged the atmosphere whenever writers gathered. Her temples pounded with a hangover from the previous night; the other thing guaranteed when writers convene was that there would be a lot of drinking.
And she was grumpy too about the uninspired sex she’d had with some journalist she’d picked up in the elevator of her hotel. Hector something. Several Mojitos at the reception that followed her speech had helped to convince her that his few days’ growth of beard was rugged or virile or something. All he’d really seemed to want from her was to agree to blurb his new novel, but if he couldn’t even give her an orgasm, why should she have higher expectations for his book?
She was checking messages on her iPhone while waiting in the line, which seemed not to have moved the entire time she’d been standing there. She was only half paying attention when suddenly her body was shoved hard and propelled forward; there was a sound so loud she felt it on her skin, repeating again, again, again. The word “bomb” slowly crawled into her consciousness. Then fire and smoke and screaming. Some people dropped to the ground, and others scrambled.
Once she had a word for it, Marielle grew calm. She had always been someone who became unnaturally composed in a crisis. During the Northridge earthquake in ’92, her then-husband, Lester, had become unhinged as the pitching of the house jolted them awake at 4:17 a.m. She’d wrapped her body around his, rolled them off the bed onto the floor, and whispered, “It’s okay, it’s okay,” until the shaking stopped. Now, even with her ears ringing from the blasts, even as chaos surrounded her, her senses were heightened, not dulled. She dropped into a crouch and began to scan the scene. Her writer’s instinct took over.
That’s how she happened to notice the two men who came running in her direction. Despite the pandemonium, she noticed them because they ran in the opposite direction of the panicked scrimmage to exit the terminal. They ran right past her, and she observed details: the orange sweatshirt and gray athletic pants worn by one, the gold cross flapping against his chest as he sprinted; the scar that had taken part of the other man’s eyebrow, and the words he yelled at his companion: “Go to Magda,” it sounded like, his accented voice cutting through the roar of sound that filled the terminal.
Marielle, without planning it, without even fully realizing what she was doing, lifted the iPhone still clutched in her hand and snapped a photo. It was reflexive, a habit; she often took a picture when she saw something she might want to describe later in a piece of writing. The taller of the two men, the one in orange, saw her do it; for a second their eyes locked as he passed her. Then they were gone.
There was something else too, a white man with short cropped gray hair and an impressive case of rosacea. Where had he come from? He wasn’t freaking out like everyone else but surveying the terminal, scanning in all directions. He wore a uniform—NYPD, she supposed, but maybe TSA—but he wasn’t running or yelling or giving directions. He was watching the scene, watching her watching. She snapped a photo of him too.
Suddenly he sprinted over to her and wrested the phone out of her hand.
“That’s mine!” she protested, snatching at empty air.
“It’s evidence now,” she thought she heard him say. Her ears were ringing, and the air was filled with shouts and crying, yet she heard his words. The glare of his blue eyes pierced her. Even his tone seemed to slice through her, so cold and sharp, maybe a hint of an accent—German? Russian? He was already moving away.
“But how will I get it back?” she called after him.
“We’ll find you,” the man called over his shoulder as he disappeared into the crowd.
By this time the authorities were starting to mobilize. They began a not very well orchestrated effort to secure and evacuate the terminal. Airport police and men and women in TSA uniforms attempted to herd highly agitated passengers out into the frosty dusk. NYPD officers arrived to provide reinforcement. Some people in the crowd were argumentative, and ordinarily she might have been one of them, but now Marielle numbly followed the officers’ shouted commands.
Everyone was made to line up on the sidewalk outside the terminal. No one would be allowed into or out of the airport until a thorough search of Terminal 8 had taken place. Children cried from cold or hunger or boredom; every few minutes an adult would launch into a squabble, or try to plead his case with one of the officers, or threaten a lawsuit against the City of New York, but to no avail. Whether their tickets were first class or coach, they’d all become refugees, without a destination, without shelter.
Marielle tried at first to make a study of her fellow exiles—the white woman in the cashmere coat who expressed outrage to anyone who would listen; the stocky African-American man who kept muttering, “This is bullshit!”—but after an hour the plummeting temperature overwhelmed her, and she retreated into herself. The wait lasted over three hours, after which the authorities determined that there were no other bombs in the terminal and that everyone might as well try to proceed to their destinations via other airlines.
At an agonizing pace, they were boarded onto shuttles and driven to other terminals. One by one, over-tired ticket agents tried to find seats for them on other flights. The security processing took another two hours, but at last Marielle dragged her thoroughly chilled body to the gate and boarded an aircraft bound for Los Angeles.
Her flight home was nerve-wracking but uneventful; like her fellow passengers, Marielle found that her anxiety competed with sheer exhaustion to produce a jittery numbness. She was certain that a lot of alcohol got consumed on that westbound flight. She’d downed a number of small bottles of white rum herself, along with as much hot tea as she could persuade the attendants to bring her. She often used her time on airplanes to write—the anonymity of travel provided a comfortable ambience for creativity—but there was no possibility of that tonight.
Desperate to contain her agitation, Marielle fretted about the loss of her phone and the inconvenience it would mean to her—the need to call the phone company, to recreate her contact list, to get a new phone and a new number, and to notify everyone. She conjectured that the officer must have seen her snap the young men’s photo; if they’d had something to do with the bombing, it might well be evidence. She’d been stupid to take that picture; it wasn’t as if she were some citizen journalist.
Marielle was grateful to slip into her own bed that night and curl up next to her cat, Dude, who was happy to have her home and showed it by licking her neck. Still, she couldn’t fall asleep until she’d watched the CNN report on the incident, as though what she’d witnessed would be more real once it was reflected by the media. They’d gotten hold of some shadowy video shot on someone else’s cell-phone; that person must have been in another part of the terminal because what the video showed was mostly smoke. They also broadcast the standard commentary from officials—“No one has yet claimed responsibility for the bombing. This incident is still under investigation, and we are not releasing any information at this time”—plus a few incoherent interviews with terrified passengers who huddled, shivering, outside the terminal. One couple was to have left that night on their honeymoon. There was a shot of a child’s stuffed rabbit abandoned on the curb. The banality of these images could be made to substitute for the images stored in Marielle’s memory; she could almost pretend it had happened to someone else. The pretense allowed her to drift into a deep sleep; if she dreamed that night, she did not remember when she woke.
The next morning the city of New York was placed on a heightened security alert; a car found abandoned in the airport parking lot contained suitcases with homemade bombs that were believed to be the same as those that had exploded in the terminal. Officials didn’t know if that meant there were other intended targets. The bags were being examined along with other evidence gathered from the site.
Marielle was relieved to be back in LA. She ran for an extra half-hour on her treadmill to disperse the adrenaline from the night before, then took a long shower—water conservation be damned. She read the account of the bombing in The Los Angeles Times, drinking coffee in her garden and feeling smug as she often did at living in a city where the temperature can reach eighty degrees in February. She was shaken all over again to read about the loss of life—two ticket agents, a baggage handler, and at least one passenger, several others in critical condition. Still, with the trees full of songbirds, the danger felt comfortably far away.
Although Marielle Wing could always find something not to her liking, she also had faith that she’d been born to live a charmed life. Of course, she’d gone through her share of difficulties—the loss of her parents while she was still in college, a trying marriage that had ended in a messy divorce—but she took it for granted that she was endowed with a certain specialness that brought with it her success as a writer, her physical beauty, and a life of relative financial comfort. Although the events of the previous night had been harrowing, she’d escaped back into her routine.
She read, “An unnamed source at Homeland Security stated that they’d been following the activities of a group of young Muslim males in New Jersey who were believed to have traveled to Pakistan to receive training in a terrorist camp.” Putting the paper down, she stared at the wall that rimmed her yard; it was glowing with magenta bougainvillea.
She thought about the two men she’d seen running. They’d looked like boys; they wouldn’t have seemed out of place on a basketball court or plugged into MP3 players on the subway. Then she shook off the memory, refolded the newspaper, and turned her attention to the stack of mail that had accumulated during her absence. There was an invitation to a reading, book signing by a colleague who’d been nominated the same year she’d won the National Book Award—it would be ungracious not to go to that—and a letter from Squaw Valley asking her to be a visiting faculty-member at an upcoming fiction conference. She would decide about that later.
She propped her feet up on a patio chair and turned her face to the sun, beginning to obsess once more about what to do with chapter seven of her newest novel, Weeping Minerva. She’d begun to worry that the action—involving a woman who attends the funerals of people she doesn’t know—was proceeding a little too smoothly—dare she say predictably. She needed something to disrupt the narrative flow, catch the reader by surprise, amp up the stakes.
She was mulling over the possibility of killing off someone close to her heroine when her telephone—her landline—jangled beside her. She’d brought the cordless out to the garden; now she picked it up with a curt “Yes?” There was nothing but static on the other end. “Hello?” she repeated, annoyed at the interruption, then hung up. A salesman? She was on the “Do Not Call” list, but people still called. Perhaps a wrong number?
She forgot it and returned to considering which character she might be willing to lose. After a moment she opened her laptop and began to peck at her keyboard, listless and uncertain at first, then with increasing momentum as the scene appeared before her.
About thirty minutes later, her doorbell rang. Ordinarily Marielle would ignore this while writing, but she had a strange intuition that whoever was at her door was somehow connected to the phone call. Instead of simply stepping through the garden gate, she took the long way through the house—through the study, then the dining room, then the living room. By the time she opened the front door, no one was there. She gazed in both directions up and down the street, but, except for a gardening crew a few houses down, there was no one to be seen. She couldn’t recall hearing a car, but her home’s thick stucco walls filtered out a lot of noise, one of the many things she loved about the house. Still, it seemed strange to find no sign of whoever had rung the bell; this was scarcely the kind of neighborhood where kids would play a prank like that. Might she have just imagined hearing the bell? Marielle shrugged, prepared to return to her reverie in the garden.
It was only by happenstance that she looked down, and was startled to see her iPhone lying facedown on the welcome mat. For a moment she felt disoriented—had it dropped from her purse when she’d come in last night? Of course it hadn’t. It had been confiscated by an officer after a terrorist bombing in Terminal 8.
“We’ll find you,” she remembered him saying, and she guessed that was possible with technology these days, though she hadn’t expected it to happen so quickly. New York was three hours ahead, but someone must have gotten on a pretty early flight to have it on her doorstep by noon. Why would they go to all that trouble?
Still, she felt relieved as she stooped to pick it up—she would now be spared the inconvenience of replacing it. How familiar its curved shape felt in her hand! Its reappearance somehow neutralized the trauma of the night before, restored her order. She was about to turn it on—not because there was anyone she needed to call but just wanting to assure herself that it still worked—when a black sedan sped up the narrow street and careened into her driveway. A slender African-American man in a charcoal suit dashed from the passenger door and yelled, “Marielle Wing, don’t touch that!”
She almost ignored him. Since adolescence, she’d bristled at any direction given to her by a man, and she often acted contrarily just for spite. This tendency had been frequently disastrous with traffic cops and was one reason she always worked with women editors. For a moment her finger hovered above the Sleep/Wake button, ready to do just what she’d been ordered not to do.
That was the moment he tackled her, pushing her body into the hedge and throwing the iPhone with as much force as he could. It exploded in the middle of the street, with an astonishing burst of flame and a powerful boom that set off a chorus of car alarms. The gardeners up the street dove for cover.
The man leapt to his feet as soon as the explosion stopped; he quickly dialed a number into his phone and repeated her address. She slid to the flagstone and remained slumped there, her ears ringing and her limbs shaking independently of any conscious direction from her mind. The cacophony of car alarms seared every nerve. She had experienced her second bombing in less than twenty-four hours, and even though she’d been unharmed in both, her skin felt brittle and porous, useless to protect her now.
When at last she could concentrate, she focused her attention on the man who’d arrived just in time to keep her from blowing herself to smithereens. He was a better dresser than she would have made him, had she been inventing his character—his canary-yellow silk tie was actually sharp—but he had dark, expressionless eyes and a nervous energy that he seemed to be devoting considerable effort to containing. He appeared quite tall until she realized that she was sprawled on the pavement, looking up at him.
“Ms. Wing?” He extended a hand and attempted to pull her to her feet.
Her knees were reluctant, though; they buckled, threatening to send him toppling, and she had to settle for sitting on the step that led to her front door. Maybe half the cars alarms had ceased of their own accord; the rest might continue until the owners of the vehicles returned.
The man with the yellow tie was saying something to her, but she couldn’t hear. She stared intently at his lips and eventually understood that he was introducing himself as “Donald Watkins, Homeland Security.” She gestured wildly with her fingertips to the air, then to her ears. He nodded and moved so close that she could feel his breath in her ear. “I’m afraid I’m going to have to ask you to come with me.”
She pulled back to look at him quizzically and saw that his face was unsmiling, as if she had done something wrong.
Just then, the bomb squad arrived, sirens wailing and further abrading her nervous system. Two squad cars parked at either end of her street, closing it off, while a truck sped toward the middle of the block, stopping directly in front of the smoking char that had been her iPhone. One team turned its attention to examining the remains of the detonation, no doubt to gather clues about the method of bomb-making and perhaps, by extension, the bomber. Another team pushed past her and entered the front door
“What are they doing?” she yelled.
“They have to search the premises,” he responded.
“They can’t,” she protested. “Do you have a warrant?”
“Don’t need one. It’s a crime scene.” He repeated, “You’re going to have to come with me.”
Despite the sound that still shattered her ability to think, she insisted on verifying his credentials, more to assert her right to do so than because she disbelieved him. He patiently produced government identification.
“I need my purse. And my shoes.” She did need these things, but also she was stalling. She didn’t want to leave her house unguarded against these officers. She didn’t want to leave Dude.
Uninvited, Donald Watkins followed her inside the house, which the police were ransacking like a marauding army. Then she understood that she had to leave; if she stayed and watched, she’d be unable to keep from jumping one of these guys and would probably end up shot or tasered.
The Homeland Security agent was in a hurry to leave, but she insisted, “I have to get my purse.” She darted into the next room before he could say anything and made her way out to the garden, where she retrieved her computer. As it happened she’d been using her huge purse—big enough to fit a laptop—in New York, so all she had to do was slip it inside and she was ready to go.
She wanted to take the time to locate Dude, but she assumed that since the explosion he’d been hiding in the laundry basket in her bedroom closet, the place where he always retreated when he was disturbed. She decided to leave him in peace, although she circled through the kitchen to make sure he had crunchies in his dish.
Returning to the living room, where Donald Watkins was pacing, she announced with far more composure than she actually felt, “I want my attorney to be with me during the interview.”
“You don’t need an attorney. You’re not a suspect here,” Watkins countered.
The reflexive habit of a lifetime of defying male authority gave her the courage to say, “Nevertheless, I’m calling her. Where should I tell her to meet us?”
On the surface, one might not suppose that a lawyer specializing in intellectual property would be of much help in such a circumstance. But Reza Caldicott was not only a negotiator of contracts and deals; she was also an expert on the First Amendment and served on the Board of the ACLU. From the moment she arrived at the squat, frigid building in a remote area south of LAX, Reza was like a bulldog with Donald Watkins.
“Are you charging my client with something? If you’re not charging her, you can’t hold her. I insist on time alone to confer with my client.” What Reza lacked in height—barely 5’0” in heels—she more than made up for in belligerence. It was part of the image she carefully cultivated that she always dressed in a tailored suit of bright red.
Donald Watkins coolly informed her that her client was not a suspect but a witness in a terrorism case, and that, under new laws enacted since 9/11, she was not even entitled to counsel, but that he was allowing Reza to sit in on the proceedings as a courtesy—one, he added, “that could be revoked at any time.”
Celebrated novelist Marielle Wing takes it for granted that she lives a charmed life. The author of nine well-regarded novels, she thinks that her biggest problem is making the short-list but not winning the Pulitzer Prize last year. But when she witnesses a terrorist bombing at JFK, Homeland Security informs her that she will have to testify before a Grand Jury. The only way to guarantee her safety is for her to enter the Witness Security Program.
Despite what the agent tells her, she believes that her identity change will be temporary; she imagines resurfacing in a year or two with a blockbuster book. Only when she reads her own obituary in The New York Times does she realize that she has been stripped of her reputation, her writing, her beauty, her charmed life.
Weeks later, when she reads that a novel, supposedly written by her, is going to be published posthumously, she breaks the rules of secrecy to find out who’s behind this fraud. The action shatters the security of her whereabouts, and, not sure whether it’s terrorists or the government who are after her, she must run for her life. In her flight for survival, she turns to unlikely sources for help—a blind man, a dreadlocked musician, two Buddhist monks, and a veteran of the Iraq War—and discovers qualities within herself that she would never have imagined.
A writing colleague has identified my novels as “spiritual thrillers,” by which I think she means that the external action is used to explore psychological and existential questions. With The Rules Do Not Apply, I wanted the action to take place against a backdrop of terrorism and government conspiracy, while at the same time remaining grounded in the inner life of the female protagonist. Another colleague, a man, has asked me why I create “unlikeable protagonists.” I think this question highlights the problem of the limited expectations we have for heroines. It’s more interesting to me when characters are prickly, difficult, stubborn, conflicted, and disinclined to follow the rules. That doesn’t make someone “unlikeable” to me; it makes them fully human, which, I would argue, our female characters should be.
I was also inspired by Haruki Murakami’s Kafka on the Shore and the way he keeps turning the story, introducing elements and characters that we couldn’t have foreseen. I am in no way comparing myself to him, but I did give myself the challenge of continually introducing new and unexpected elements into the story.
Terry Wolverton is the author of eleven books of poetry, fiction, and creative nonfiction, including Embers, a novel in poems, and Insurgent Muse: art and life at the Woman’s Building, a memoir. Her most recent poetry collection is Ruin Porn. She is the founder of Writers At Work, a creative writing studio in Los Angeles, and an affiliate faculty-member in the MFA Writing Program at Antioch University Los Angeles. Her website is terrywolverton.com.
Embark, Issue 7, January 2019