The man in the hallway beamed down at her. "Mrs. Earhart," he said. His hat rested in the crook of one elbow. "May I come in?"
The woman who opened the door felt her hand stray to the grease stain that still clung to her housedress as the rest of her tried to look around the man's shoulders. But he filled the gap.
"I'm —" In her head, Hank's voice spoke up. Don't say your name to strangers, sweetheart—"I'm not her. You have the wrong address. Sorry."
She had remembered to keep the deadbolt chained, at least, and its short leash sagged as she made a closing motion that wouldn't finish. Her puzzled glance caught a brown loafer, nicer than anything Hank had seen in years, in the bottom of the frame.
"Mister," she said to the calfskin that cradled the bones so gently, and Hank on his feet more like than not for eight straight hours, "I can't help you."
"Oh, I haven't even told you who I am yet, have I?" He balanced on his other foot to reach into his jacket without losing his smile.
Frozen between what the gangster movies she snuck told her about inside pockets and the common sense Hank talked on so much about, she flinched when the man emerged clutching a wad of small paper.
"Jason Kelly, North American Aviation." When he offered the top piece of paper—his card—for inspection, she saw the rest was dark green and printed with numbers. Like cash. "At your service."
Slowly, she let her arm unbrace from the edge of the door. "What kind of service?"
His mouth and eyebrows both pulled themselves a little higher. "You know what year it is, Mrs. Earhart."
She did, although she had to think for half a second longer than she would've admitted to Hank. The man was making her nervous about the gaps in her awareness, which were easy enough to hide in her folds of gingham and to swipe away with the dust rag but stood out clearly when the world shone on them.
"Please let me in, Mrs. Earhart." He hadn't tucked the wad of bills back into his own folds yet. She saw a twenty floating on top. How many lunches would that pack for Hank; how many softwing paperbacks could she read to silk and the just throw away when they had passed their use like stockings that caught runs?
"For what?" she said, keeping her eyes pointed at the money.
He saw what she was looking at, and his voice crisped around the edges. "Ah." One-handed, he peeled off the bill and held it between them where it hovered for the briefest second before she closed on set of fingers around it while the other loosened the deadbolt from its track.
"We are prepared to reward you handsomely, if that's what is concerning you," he said.
She fought the urge to say thank you—you don't know what he wants from you yet, baby—as she opened her home to the rest of the fitted suit that stepped inside.
Almost as soon as the rented keys had jingled newly in their hands, she and Hank had talked incessantly of living somewhere bigger, better. But somewhere at the twenties' end, they stopped sprinkling their life with plans. As if she'd let the larder run out of salt.
The man lowered himself onto Hank's end of the sofa, deftly pinching the knee-pleats of his trousers so they rode an inch above his shoes. He slid his hat onto the squared armrest. Hank liked the modern shape, and the plaid made her nostalgic for her girls' school days. Perched in poshness that neatly hid any unease, the man looked like the headmaster, coming to talk to her mother about A Very Serious Matter.
"Amelia," he said, leaning forward and steepling his hands between the thin pistons of his legs. "May I call you Amelia?"
She stood beside him, leaving all her manners in a neglectful heap, folding her hands in front of her apron. His money stayed caged in his grip, and between their finger bars she would've sworn on the rosary she lost at graduation that a five snugged too close to a zero on the one that now showed on top.
"Mister, that's not my name, but—" She swallowed. She and Hank were going to get something out of this, even if she'd have to make up a story how. "But you can call me what you want if I can have those shoes."
An involuntary spasm of pain flashed across his face before he fixed his smile back. He was quick, but she saw. "My shoes?"
She nodded, and he stood up. For a second, she thought she'd misjudged and he'd walk away. She was already resigning Hank to the lesser but still new lace-ups the $20 would buy. But he stepped out of his loafers one at a time and then settled back into the upholstery.
"Now, Mrs. Earhart," he said. "Let's really talk."
She nodded and put the shoes next to the icebox with the chicken defrosting for dinner.
Hank's footsteps on the stairs announcement him some unknown hours after the man had left her holding his card and staring unseeing at the mantle clock.
"Think about it, Mrs. Earhart," the man had said, squaring the brim of his hat on the edges of his banker's haircut. "We realize you value your privacy, but think of the greater good."
Her husband's key rattle startled her out of her thoughts and pulled up her lips in an automatic smile at his short figure lunging through the door with his headful of black curls leading the way. He didn't fill his suit anymore; the seams sagged, but he tried to return her mask of cheerfulness.
He paused in the juncture between kitchen and her post in the parlor and sniffed. "What's for dinner?"
Her mind flew back to her in one piece, and she thought a curse word that she did not say out loud. "I'm sorry, dear—"
He held up a hand that clutched a paper bag still puffed with what she'd packed for him in the morning. "Didn't get a chance to eat lunch," he said. "We can share that."
She went to him and reached to slide an arm around his shoulder. She managed a brief squeeze before he made his way to the icebox. He stepped back into sight minutes later holding the shoes by their polished heels.
"What are these?" he said.
"Those are for you." She took the chicken from where it dangled forgotten in his other hand and walked it the few steps past him back to the icebox. Its hum did its best to drown out the nerves in her voice. "I was going to wait until your birthday, but—well, there you go."
"When in heaven and hell did we get the money?"
She paused a beat before she turned around to him with her announcement. "I agreed to do a little—acting."
"Acting?" His face didn't know what to do. "Since when?"
She let the rattle of stacking two plates and forks and knives onto the table next to the stove before she answered. "Since I'll be—we'll be getting four hundred dollars for it."
Hank whistled—not the brisk, impatient but friendly burst he used to catch attention and hide the fact that he couldn't remember names for anything, but a low note of disbelief. He closed their gap in half a stride and took her hand in his as she met his gaze. It had settled on worried. "Honey, now what do you have to do for it?"
She laughed. She couldn't help it. It was so absurd, and pleasing in a way she'd never tell him, that he thought anyone might take advantage of her womanhood, long pressed and folded and left out to wrinkle into middle age, that hilarity bubbled out of her before she could answer him seriously.
"Now, honey," he started, but she shook her head.
"I just have to stand on a stage in front of people for a while," she said, reaching into his lunch sack and pulling out the sandwiches. "Maybe cut a ribbon."
Hank peeled at the wax paper like a banana. "Well then," he said, and took a bite. Yellow mustard mixed with the tail end of the deli meat as he finally decided to smile. "Well then."
She sat down next to him, brought the other sandwich to her own plate, and ate with more appetite than she'd had all week.
The man had settled back in his stocking feet and accepted the Princeton mug of coffee she had balanced from the kitchen. It was Hank's, and a joke; he didn't know which way down the road to point to the university.
"Just one appearance, Mrs. Earhart." The man closed his eyes has he brought the steam to his face and sipped.
"Public?" she had said, lowering herself into the wingback of corduroy rubbed smooth from her nights of listening and her days of dreaming. Lately she'd taken to stashing yarn and needles under it so the Ladies' Auxiliary got their share of blanket squares. But she left it still now. Her fingers trembled at the tips so she held them laced together in her lap. "In front of a lot of people?"
"Naturally." The man had opened his eyes to look at her, and in them she saw the first glimpse of doubt. He lowered the mug. "Mrs. Earhart, you're two weeks away from being declared legally dead."
"Oh, that poor—" She had said this before realizing it, her head filled with the brave toothy smile in the long face and its double cap of hair and aviator's helmet radiating from the newspaper pages and disappearing just as suddenly as it had dropped from the sky.
"Wouldn't it be a grand thing?" Hank had said at the end of a very ordinary day, as they sat close filled with a ham she had cooked a thousand times over, snugged in their usual sofa dents listening to something completely different come out of the news.
"Maybe," she had said then, hemming an old skirt as the Sears catalog sat unopened on the table, "maybe we could too. When it's safe."
He cupped a cool hand around her neck. "Maybe we can fly to see Mother. Wouldn't that be a surprise?"
"I can think of a lot more exciting places to go than Albuquerque," she had said before thinking, but he had laughed and said he could, too, and they had spent a breathless week plotting before the updates on the crash and disappearance had drained their plans to hatpins stuck in the only world map they owned.
Sitting across from the man two years later, she felt a ghost of the same excitement start to creep through her veins. She held very, very still as the man balanced the mug on the armrest to lean forward, deeper into the gaze she was trying to avoid.
"Mrs. Earhart, I'm prepared to take on all the resulting publicity and legal trouble for you. You can go back to exactly what you're doing now. For a nominal fee, of course."
She wondered what that meant. "But we'll still get four hundred dollars, won't we?"
"Of course, Mrs. Earhart." He had grabbed the coffee mug again and taken a swallow that looked like it almost drowned his Adam's apple as it went down. "You just be American Aviation's happy ending for a day, and I'll take care of all the rest."
"Will I fly?" she said.
"No," he said after a stretched beat. "No, we won't make you do that anymore."
She had felt a whisper of disappointment as she stood up and held out her hand like Hank when his union foreman stopped by about meetings. "Mister, we have a deal."
The man had followed her lead, pressing the rest of his paper bundles into his side of the shake. She handed him Hank's mud boots and watched him muck out the door.
The day of the ceremony rose reluctantly, the sun straining through clouds that tried to push it back into slumber.
She lay awake next to Hank's snoring plank of a back, watching the silent battle between their bedroom curtains ragged against the postage-stamp glass, and wondered what on earth to tell her husband.
He hadn't asked any other questions. She told herself that, and it had worked fairly well so far, getting her up out of bed and into the soft shuffle of a normal day until she caught a glimpse of the newspaper.
EARHART CASE DRAWING TO A CLOSE. She would pick up where Hank had left off reading as he scraped his plate clean of breakfast and gave her a flat wet peck on the cheek before he rushed out.
STILL MISSING, SOON DEAD. Sometimes he'd tuck it in his briefcase and she'd go the day able to forget, only to walk into it after dinner as he put his feet up.
FAMILY TO FILE CLAIM IN 3 DAYS, and then two, and one, when Maybelle from next door interrupted her jitters a little after noon to tell her someone was on the hall phone.
"He was asking for someone at y'all's number but I don't think he's got the name right." Maybelle hitched up the baby squirming at her hip; it could've been Maybelle's, the neighbor wasn't too young for it, but she found it hard to believe something so vibrant came from such a wane source.
She smiled at Maybelle, who let herself smile back, and ventured to the headset bolted to the wall between their doors. "Hello?"
"Mrs. Earhart." He didn't ask it anymore. "We've got the place, and—look, I'm sorry, I tried to do better, but we're working against some major doubt here—"
If she didn't add anything to anything, maybe he wouldn't ask for his $400 back.
"No matter how many times I tell those creeps at the press office that your birth certificate was lost at sea—"
(But it wasn't. It was locked up in the cigar box Hank had fitted with a latch and key and had her bury at the bottom of a drawer full of garters and slips aged out of use. "Robbers get embarrassed when they have to paw through ladies' things," Hank had said, and she didn't know if that was true but the key was well-hidden anyway, now cushioned by the cash.)
He let out a short, gusty sigh that seemed to make room for his charm to snake back in. "I'm sorry, Mrs. Earhart. The Knights of Columbus hall was the best we could do."
"In Trenton?" The wave of nervousness that had built up behind her washed into a manageable pool. She had been there before, not long ago. She could conjure the plain walls that glowed like buttercream when the sun was strong and the rows of folding chairs set up to face the bingo cage hand-cranked at the folding table up front. Nothing fancy. She could maybe even fool some of them if that middle lightbulb hadn't been replaced yet.
"Yes, Mrs. Earhart." He sighed again, this one longer and tattered at the end. "I'm sorry. It's the best I could do."
"That's all right," she said, guilt loosening around her fear. "What time should I be there?"
"The courts close at four, so I scheduled the press conference for one." A pause that ended by a faint drag of cloth. "We'll be there in twenty minutes."
"Here?" Panic again beat its frantic wings against her. But she hadn't changed out of her clothes that stank of egg and furniture polish. She wanted to wear that evergreen suit she hadn't pulled out since Tommy's mother died—something with the dignity of church on it—and she didn't know how deep it lingered among its more cheerful, useful sisters.
"Look for my taxi, Mrs. Earhart," he said. Something like a luggage trunk snapped closed behind him. "And don't worry about wardrobe, just—look yourself."
He hung up, so she did, too, and after a half-second hesitation hurried back inside her apartment for her coat.
The leather jacket her fit better across the chest than anything she had gotten in a department store. Its real owner had been flat as a butcher's block, too, and as the sheep fur lining itched where it tried to escape around the wrists and neck, she felt a bond with the woman who had first worn this cracked skin across hers.
The man had been frowning as he handed it over to her when she slipped into the yellow taxi that stopped in front of her building. As they moved past the repeating wallpaper of city—factory-stores-housing, factory-stores-housing, as reliable as the decades flashing by—his face had deepened and he had turned it to her.
"I'm so sorry, Mrs. Earhart." She had stopped counting how many times he said that.
She didn't know what he expected, anyway, on a Tuesday afternoon with such nice weather. The winter sun's teeth had finally started to blunt its bite so the light felt like itself again. The Knights of Columbus, who she assumed were the serious gentlemen wearing sashes and flanking the door, were kind enough to lend their hall and fill seats amongst the press who looked too young to shave or be fiddling with such expensive cameras.
She realized she was enjoying herself. It didn't feel like a real lie if no one was truly listening. "It's all right."
He scanned the hall from where they stood in a corner, half concealed in a nook meant for a saint. The displaced statue pointed a serene plaster hand at the sparse crowd.
Without a word, the man gestured her to follow him to a thin stick set upright so its metal bulge ended right at the height of his mouth.
"Ladies and gentlemen," he said into the holes at the top, and the trace of disappointed anger in his voice echoed and danced largely around the room. "Mrs. Amelia Earhart." He stepped back, and the eyes of the room settled on her.
Would she have to - ? She inched closer to the voice amplifier. The jacket creaked out of proportion to her movement. "Hello." Maybe if she spoke, she could get an extra $20.
Hands raised themselves, but one reporter sprang up ready with a notebook. "Mrs. Earhart—if that is your real name—"
The girl wore a hat like a man and had a cigarette dangling from red lips. At least it wasn't lit in public. When nobody reacted, she went on.
"Mrs. Earhart, why now?"
She looked over at the man for guidance. His frown offered none. "Pardon?"
"I mean—" Was that chewing gum wedged into her other cheek? "If you don't want to fly anymore, why not just let the world think you're dead?"
The gleam of predator corning prey in the reporter's eyes stiffened her spine. "Well, young lady—"
"Is it for the money? Are you aware your inheritance comes to almost exactly—"
The man reached over and pulled her into his position while deftly maneuvering into hers before the amplifier.
"If you kind folks would like to step outside, we've got one last hurrah for you." He clamped a hand on her shoulder and steered her through the lazy forest of legs standing up at their own paces. Outside and around the Hall's corner stood a revelation.
"We couldn't get her real plane back, obviously, so we got her the next best thing."
She barely heard him or the hum of interest that rose to eye level like a mild fog. She was too busy listening to the plane.
"—purely for show, of course, Mrs. Earhart will not be going back into —"
It stretched across the empty pavement, wings a double set of lines set together by spotless canvas, the bullet body pocked by an open cockpit in the middle. The front propeller stood suspended like clock hands.
She felt herself falling in love.
When she touched the smooth hide of the plane, it felt a little like Hank touching her bare skin on their wedding night.
"She's getting in!" A flurry of phosphorescent pops went off behind her, stilled almost as fast as they started.
There wasn't a door on the side like a roadster, but if she—Mother, forgive me—hiked up her skirt, she could hoist herself over the lip and drop into the snug embrace of the seat.
"Mrs. Earhart!" The man rushed towards her, but her fingers had already found a grip. They triggered a button that sent the whole machine growling to life. The man turned on the crowd. "Who put fuel in there? Who made this—"
She rotated her hands, and the plane slung around with her, away from the man and Albuquerque and the only kind of freedom she'd get on the ground.
Melanie Griffin works in human resources at her favorite public library in Columbia, SC. Her short fiction has been published in Alligator Juniper; New Dead Families; Up, Do; and Imitation Fruit. She placed in the top 100 of the Literary Fiction category of the 2007 Writers' Digest annual writing competition and in the top 10 of Alligator Juniper's 2011 short story contest.