When Marcus was ten, he saw a man walk through a brick wall. He was late to his first period class at Wells Elementary and running through a downtown alley when he spotted a figure emerging from the side of Lakeland Hardware Store. The man wore a black suit with shiny black shoes. His shoulder-length hair looked whiter than seagull feathers. His body passed through the bricks without a mark. He spun and faced Marcus with upturned palms, like he was presenting a gift.
Marcus skidded to a stop. “Holy hell.”
“Don’t worry,” the stranger said. “I got this.”
A high-pitched wail sounded from above. Marcus looked up. A toddler tumbled through the air toward them, arms flailing, legs kicking, mouth voicing a never-ending scream of terror. Marcus froze.
The child landed in the man’s arms, then fell silent. The little girl’s eyes grew wide as she stared at the man who’d caught her. All at once she seemed content, even docile. Like this man had rocked her to sleep in his arms a dozen times before.
Marcus couldn’t believe what he saw. He blew out a huge breath. “How—”
The stranger approached with the child in his arms. “Take her.”
Marcus stepped back. “I can’t.”
“Of course you can. You saved this girl’s life.”
He looked at the white-haired stranger, trying to gage the man’s intent. “But I didn’t.”
“No matter. Here.” The man shoved the toddler into Marcus’s arms. The added weight caused Marcus’s knees to buckle. Her bones must have been made of lead. Nothing about this seemed real.
The man touched his forehead with two fingers and gave a salute. “My work here is done.”
The man winked, then disappeared into the wall.
Marcus didn’t move for several moments. Only when the toddler started grunting and twisting in his arms did he realize time had not frozen. He turned toward Main Street. Minivans and delivery trucks zoomed past the alley. No one came looking in response to the toddler’s scream. The child didn’t feel as heavy as before. Everything seemed to have returned to normal. But Marcus knew his world had changed.
Another voice sounded above him, coming from an apartment balcony on the second floor. “Victoria? Victoria?”
The child wailed again. A woman’s head appeared above the railing. “Oh my God. Victoria!”
Ten minutes later, an ambulance and two police officers arrived. After a brief examination, the paramedics assured Victoria’s mother her baby was completely unharmed. The police officers advised the mother to invest in better child gates, then offered to drive Marcus to school.
Word spread quickly at Wells Elementary. After the third period bell, the principal made an announcement over the intercom. Marcus’s friends punched his arm and called him Childcatcher, and his cheeks burned each time they repeated the word. Even Julie, the skinny blonde in art class he secretly wanted to kiss, seemed to look at him like he’d recorded a hit record. The added attention only made him feel more nervous, more shallow, and more unworthy.
That evening, his parents pushed him for a more detailed account of his moment of heroism, as his father described it. “How did you know to look up?”
Marcus shrugged. “I don’t know, Dad.”
“They said the toddler was crying,” his mother said.
“Damn, boy. You must have jaguar reflexes.”
Marcus didn’t know how to respond. The praise he’d received made him doubt his memory. In the shower that evening, he studied his forearms. Dark rose patches bled through his mocha-colored skin. He touched one of the spots. It was sore.
Could he have imagined the stranger in the alley? Was he really the hero everyone thought he was?
Maybe for one night he could pretend to believe he deserved that nickname, but the deepest part of him knew the truth. In that moment of heroism, as his father had called it, Marcus had frozen. And true heroes never froze.
But when his bruises faded, so did his memory of the man with white hair. He started to believe the perception his classmates held of him. One day his high school science teacher lectured on Occam’s razor, and afterward Marcus became convinced the man was just a figment his mind had created the moment he’d heard the toddler scream.
Besides, more pressing dilemmas commanded his attention. His father was battling an inoperable brain tumor, and Marcus and his mother worked hard to adjust to the garbled messages his father’s brain kept producing. Among the casualties were his father’s job, his mother’s patience, and Marcus’s sense of security.
He pushed each of those worries from his mind while dancing at the Lakeland High Homecoming. Julie, in her low-cut burgundy dress, swooned each time he pulled her across the gym floor. She kissed him like she no longer had any doubts.
“Let’s get out of here,” she said.
They spent the evening at Walker’s Point, along with a few other cars. When Marcus left Julie’s front porch and strode back to his Pontiac, he knew his world had changed again. He revved the engine with a confidence he hadn’t felt in years.
The stereo played his favorite track from the new Guns N Roses album. He screamed the high notes and growled through the lower ones. The song ended at the same time he pulled into his parents’ driveway and killed the engine.
He marched to the front entry and raised his key toward the lock. Then the man with long white hair walked through the closed door.
The man placed a hand against Marcus’s chest. “Stop.”
Marcus couldn’t move. He’d spent years convincing himself this man wasn’t real, then had all but forgotten him. But here the man stood, emerging through a solid wood door exactly like he had years ago.
But this time he wasn’t smiling.
“Don’t go inside,” the man said. “Not yet.”
Going inside hadn’t even occurred to Marcus. He wanted to ask the man a hundred questions. He wanted to know how much of this was real.
“How did you—“
The sound of a gunshot silenced him. Marcus looked past the stranger. The shot had come from inside the house.
He pushed against the man’s hand. It wouldn’t budge.
“Not yet, Marcus.”
He pushed harder, using his legs, his entire body. But the man seemed like he been cast from concrete. His fingertips felt cold against Marcus’s chest.
Another gunshot echoed from inside the house. Marcus chopped at the stranger’s arm with his own. The man seemed to ponder something, then stepped aside. “I’m sorry, Marcus,”
Marcus wrestled with the lock, turned it as fast as he could. Then rushed into the darkened foyer.
The house stayed completely quiet. He ran into the kitchen—nothing. He checked the family room, then his father’s study. No movement, nothing out of place. He sprinted to the back hallway. Ran even faster once he smelled the gunpowder.
He found them in their bedroom, each lying on their familiar sides of the bed. His mother’s pillow was covered in blood. His father’s looked the same. A large black gun rested near his father’s hand on the sheets. Marcus reached around his mother’s body and hugged her. She was still warm.
Like before, the police and paramedics arrived quickly, but not soon enough to save Marcus’s parents. Neighbors quickly corroborated Marcus’s story. They had noticed the loud music and engine noise that preceded the gunshots. But no one had seen the white-haired stranger who’d stopped Marcus from entering the house.
Marcus spent the next agonizing few days planning his parents’ funeral. Aunts and cousins stepped in to help with the details, but Marcus was more concerned about how he would say good-bye. He didn’t blame his father. He knew his dad had been acting more erratic with each day, and that keeping a gun in the house hadn’t been a good idea. Marcus was as much to blame as his mother for that oversight. But he couldn’t help thinking the stranger had more to do with the tragedy than he knew. The man had stolen Marcus’s chance to save his family. He’d done it on purpose, like he knew exactly when Marcus’s father would pull the trigger.
Forgiving his father was easy. He leaned over the closed casket and told his dad how much he loved him in a tone no one else could hear. Same thing with his mother. He held his tears until the whirring electric motor lowered the coffins into their graves. Everyone at the service told him they were sorry—sorry he had lost his two pillars, sorry he’d seen the immediate aftermath of the scene. Sorry he would have to negotiate the rest of his life without the two people who had raised him.
After the gravesite crowd dispersed, Marcus noticed a man in a dark suit walk out from a huge oak trunk. He charged up the hill toward the man.
The stranger raised his palms. “Let me explain.”
Marcus lunged forward and locked his hands around the man’s throat. He forced him against the tree. Squeezed as hard as his fingers could.
“Marcus, this is useless. It’s time to talk.”
The man spoke calmly, like Marcus’s grip hadn’t affected his airway. His face didn’t turn red. No veins bulged from his neck. Marcus squeezed tighter. The man’s throat didn’t give. His skin felt as cold as his fingertips had several nights ago.
“You killed them,” Marcus said.
“No, I saved your life.”
“Who the fuck are you?”
The stranger blinked. “You can’t hurt me. No point trying.”
Marcus held his grip a few moments more. The man showed no signs of distress. His face remained as calm as the day he’d placed a child in Marcus’s arms.
Marcus thought about that. Must have been eight years ago. But this man hadn’t aged a minute.
“I know this is difficult to hear, but I needed to stop you the other night.”
The man shook his head. “You would have died in that house, Marcus. Your father would have shot you first, then your mother, then himself.”
The chill from the stranger’s neck jumped to Marcus’s spine. “How do you know?”
“It’s what I do. I make corrections.”
Marcus released the man’s throat. He grabbed the lapels of the man’s suit. “What are you saying?”
“You’re meant for something bigger.”
“Like what?” Marcus tried to shake the stranger, but of course he wouldn’t budge.
“Not now. I’ll explain later.”
A woman’s voice sounded behind him. “Marcus?”
He turned. Julie stood ten feet away. Her pale white skin looked almost translucent in the morning sun. “What are you doing?”
When Marcus looked back, the man had vanished. Marcus’s fingers held nothing but the crisp air. He hung his head.
Julie hugged him from behind. “Don’t worry, Marcus. You’re not alone. I’m here.”
And she was. Julie and Marcus stayed close during college, even though their campuses were a ninety-minute drive from each other. Her tireless efforts to comfort him helped push Marcus’s thoughts of the white-haired man into the farthest reaches of his mind. But the nagging question remained. He couldn’t imagine a greater purpose than to save his parents from a horrible tragedy. But that’s what the man had said.
Each day Marcus read the paper trying to decipher some hint of his destiny. Forest fires were erupting in the west. The Middle East was a predictable disaster, with terrorist becoming brave enough to attack a U.S. battleship while it was in port. But the economy was humming along. Everyone said that was a good thing. But Marcus didn’t feel good about anything since the night his parents died. He became convinced his life wasn’t his anymore, that he was a pawn in some paranormal game of chess.
He might have felt better if he knew the rules. But the stranger with white hair never materialized to clear anything up. Years passed. Marcus landed an accounting job at an insurance company in Boston. So did Julie; that had been their plan. But Marcus quickly saw the cracks forming.
She took a position with a firm across town, even though Marcus’s company had also made an offer. Her commute lasted an extra thirty minutes. But that time seemed to lengthen with each passing week. Marcus knew something was wrong.
One Thursday night, He decided to make a surprise dinner. He prepared a vegan pasta primavera—Julie’s favorite. He cut and cooked the zucchini, sundried tomatoes, and asparagus tips just like the recipe said. He laid everything out on the tiny apartment table and waited.
As the steam rose from the noodles, Marcus’s mind started to churn. He imagined all the different circumstances that might explain Julie’s constant tardiness. He placed his hand over the pasta. Somehow it had lost all its heat. He glanced at the clock. Two hours had passed. He covered the pasta and placed it in the microwave, then marched toward the window that overlooked the street.
He leaned against the sill and crossed his arms. This was stupid. He must be imagining things again. How much of his life had occurred only in his imagination? Did he catch that toddler on his own? Had he hesitated on the steps when he heard that first gunshot? Did the white-haired man really exist? Did Julie really love him, or did she just feel sorry for him?
He walked to the microwave and retrieved the pasta. He sat on the living room floor with the bowl resting in his lap. He looked at his hands—the hands that had once saved a falling child. Or maybe not. He dug his fingers into the bowl and fed the cold noodles into his mouth.
The pasta tasted like cardboard, but he chewed through each bite and swallowed hard. He stared at the apartment door and concentrated, willing the white-haired stranger to appear. Bite after bite, nothing happened. He reached the bottom of the bowl. His fingers squeezed the last noodle when the apartment door opened.
Julie appeared in her gray business suit. Her blazer was misbuttoned, off by one. She dropped her briefcase and placed her hands on her hips.
“I made dinner,” Marcus said.
“I see.” Julie walked past him toward the kitchen. He suddenly became aware of the mess covering his face. He tried to wipe it off with his fingers, which only made it worse. He looked down. His shirt was covered with sauce.
“We need to talk,” Julie said.
Marcus scrambled to his feet. In seconds he was in front of her. “I’ve been wanting to talk for weeks.”
Marcus noted something missing in her eyes, something that had been there just after the school announcement, and at the homecoming dance. She tilted her jaw to the side and looked away. “This isn’t working for me.”
The rest of the conversation remained a blur to Marcus, mostly because he tried to erase the entire memory at a local pub over the next three days. Upon his return, he found she’d emptied her half of the apartment. She didn’t even leave a note; Julie had disappeared, like so many other things in his life.
But Marcus refused to stop loving her. He kept the apartment as clean as she’d demanded, and cooked pasta primavera every Thursday night, though he never ate it again. Each week when she didn’t show up, he shoved the food into the garbage disposal and listened to its angry growl.
But the memory of her didn’t fade like his memories of the stranger. Long after her scent had faded from their sheets Marcus would bury his face in her pillow, hoping for one last intoxicating sniff.
Months passed. One Thursday Marcus decided it was time to move on. He stopped by the grocery on the way back from work and bought a rib eye with thick marble lines and a bundle of asparagus. He set the finished plate on the table and readied his knife. Then the phone rang.
“I was hoping you’d pick up.”
He sucked in a deep breath, and let it out slowly. “I’ve been waiting for your call.”
Marcus imagined her ivory cheeks gently reddening. She always looked so beautiful when she got embarrassed.
“Listen, I moved to San Francisco.”
“I thought I needed a change of scenery. You know, I was starting to get so depressed by how things were.”
“Yeah,” he said.
“But this new city has me thinking. I don’t know many people out here, and all these insurance companies are hiring. It’s such a beautiful place. You should see it.”
Marcus booked a flight to San Francisco for the next morning. He raced to the airport without locking the apartment door. No matter. Boston was in his past now. His destiny waited in San Francisco.
He thought about what the stranger had told him after his parents’ funeral. Julie must be somehow connected to all this. She’d first noticed him after the principal had declared him a hero. And she’d drawn closer to him after the tragic death of his parents. Maybe the something bigger he was meant for was Julie. Maybe one of their children would become president. He didn’t know much about fate, but he supposed it was possible the man with white hair had been guiding him toward Julie this entire time.
The cabin seatbelt sign turned off. Marcus reclined his seat. The gentle roar of the engines tempted him to fall asleep. Then the white-haired stranger appeared in the seat to his right.
The man stretched his arms like he’d been sitting in the window seat for an hour. His seatbelt was somehow already fastened. “Are you ready?”
Marcus looked around the cabin. The plane was sparsely filled, no more than forty passengers. The closest person sat three rows away. No one seemed to notice the airplane’s newest occupant.
“I already figured this out,” Marcus said. “I’m supposed to be with Julie.”
The man smiled and shook his head. “I told you, it’s bigger than that.”
“What could be bigger?”
The plane fell into a nosedive without warning. Marcus’s stomach flipped. He grabbed the armrests and held on like they could save him. Thirty terrifying seconds later, the plane righted itself.
The stranger covered Marcus’s hand with his own. His skin felt warmer than before. “Take heart, you can do this.”
The curtains separating first class from coach parted. Scared passengers and crew rushed toward the back of the plane. Three men with red strips of cloth tied around their heads chased after them, shouting unintelligible words.
Marcus glanced at the stranger, who held a serious look on his face. “What’s going on?”
The passengers from first class filled in the seats around him. Each looked pale and sweaty. Marcus caught part of their conversation:
“They killed a flight attendant and the pilots.”
“The man in 5A, too.”
“Oh my God. We’re gonna die.”
“Everybody calm down.”
“I’m calling my wife.”
The hijackers had retreated toward the first class section. Marcus noticed box cutters in their hands.
He pulled out a credit card and stuck it into the slot in front of him. The airplane phone released and fell in his lap. He dialed Julie’s number. Waited three rings. Four rings. Five.
“Listen, my plane has been hijacked. I don’t know what’s happening, but it doesn’t look good.”
A man seated in the row across from Marcus was also on the phone. He pulled the receiver from his ear. “Shit, we’re not the only ones.”
“Marcus?” Julie said.
“Quick, turn on the news.”
The plane pitched sharply to the left. Passengers screamed. Loose items tumbled toward one wing. Everyone went silent. After a moment, the plane returned to normal.
The cabin speaker crackled, then a man with a heavy Arabic accent spoke. “Attention, the authorities have met our demands. We are returning to the airport.”
“Bullshit,” a passenger said.
“Marcus, the news looks bad. Two planes flew into the World Trade Center in New York.”
The white-haired stranger nodded like he already knew what Julie had said. “This is your moment of heroism, Marcus. All my corrections have led to this.”
Marcus didn’t want to hear the man. He wished he could be like everyone else who couldn’t see this stranger. He’d wanted to be the hero of his own life’s story, the one who raced across the country to save his relationship with his one true love. But that moment would never come. His life had become a series of events that had merely happened to him.
Other passengers were looking out the windows. “We aren’t heading back to Boston. We’re going south.”
“This plane will crash into the Capitol dome,” the stranger said. “The whole building literally implodes.”
“Stop it,” Marcus said.
“Stop what?” Julie’s heavy breathing clouded the line with static. “What’s going on?”
“But you can change this, Marcus. You can make the biggest correction of all.”
“I don’t know how to fly a plane,” Marcus said.
“This isn’t about flying. It’s about stopping.”
Heat rushed into Marcus’s cheeks. His heartbeat pounded in his ears. He looked around. Passengers everywhere were panicking. Some held their elbows and rocked back and forth. A few screamed into mobile phones. Others whispered into their hands.
“Why me?” Marcus said.
“It won’t be just you. Others will help. But someone needs to lead them. Who better than the man who once saved a falling child?”
“That wasn’t me.”
The stranger smirked. “You’re much older now. More aware, more ready.”
Marcus squeezed his eyes shut. He wanted to turn the world off for a minute to think. But the engines’ roar kept him in the moment. If what Julie and the other passengers said was true, Marcus’s life was over. His world had changed yet again. But the white-haired stranger was right. Marcus still had a say in how everything would end, and what it would mean.
“Julie, listen. I love you. I’ve always loved you. And I always will.”
“I need to go now, but please remember what I said.”
“Marcus, don’t do something stupid—“
He slammed the phone into its compartment, then turned toward the stranger. The man was gone.
Marcus released his seatbelt and stood. “Everyone, gather close. I have an idea.”