If a Stranger Approaches You

Stories

by Laura Kasischke

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If a Stranger Approaches You
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Stories
Author
Laura Kasischke

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NPR Summary

Kasischke's first collection of short stories, after numerous novels and poetry collections, reveals the unexpected within characters' domestic lives.

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Note: Book excerpts are provided by the publisher and may contain language some find offensive.

Excerpt: If a Stranger Approaches You

"IF A STRANGER APPROACHES YOU ABOUT CARRYING A FOREIGN OBJECT WITH YOU ONTO THE PLANE..."

Once there was a woman who was asked by a stranger to carry a foreign object with her onto a plane:

When the stranger approached her, the woman was sitting at the edge of her chair a few feet from the gate out of which her plane was scheduled to leave. Her legs were crossed. She was wearing a black turtleneck and slim black pants. Black boots. Pearl studs in her ears. She was swinging the loose leg, the one that was tossed over the knee of the other—swinging it slowly and rhythmically, like a pendulum, as she tried to drink her latté in burning sips.

By the time the stranger approached her and asked her to carry the foreign object with her onto the plane, the woman had already owned that latté for at least twenty minutes, but it hadn't cooled a single degree. It was as if there were a thermonuclear process at work inside her cup—the steamed milk and espresso somehow generating together their own heat—and the tip of her tongue had been stung numb from trying to drink it, and the plastic nipple of the cup's white lid was smeared with her lipstick.

Her name was Kathy Bliss. She was anxious. At home, her two year-old was sick, but she'd had to go to Maine anyway because she'd been asked to speak on behalf of the non-profit for which she worked, and possibly thousands upon thousands of dollars would be gifted to it by her hosts if she were able to conjure the right combination of passion and desperation with which she was sometimes able to speak on behalf of her non-profit. She didn't much believe in what they were doing, which was, to her mind, mostly justifying the spending of their donations on computers and letterhead and lunches with donors, but she had her eye on another non-profit, one devoted to curing a disease (or at least publicizing a disease) which no one knew about until it was contracted, at which time the body attacked itself, turning the skin into suit of armor, petrifying the internal organs one by one. The vice president of this non-profit had his eye on the regional directorship of the American Cancer Society, she knew, and with some luck his position would be open, and she would be ready to move into it.

Still, she'd always understood that you have to put your energy into the place you are if you want to move on to another place; and, on occasion, she could be convincing—something about the podium, a bottle of water, a few notes, and all eyes on her—and there was clearly no one else at her non-profit who could even remotely have been considered for this engagement. (Jen, with her multiple piercings? Rob with his speech impediment?) She had to go.

The baby was sick, but the baby would be fine. Kathy Bliss had a husband, after all, who would take care of their baby. He was the baby's father, for God's sake. This wasn't 1952. The man had a Ph.D. in compassion; who was she to think the baby would be any better off with her there just because she was of a certain gender? And if she hadn't had to go to Maine, Garrett would have gone to work himself, which would have left only one parent at home anyway, doing the same thing either way—cuddling, cleaning up puke, taking the temp, filling the sippy cup with cold water.

Still, Kathy Bliss felt a pain, which she knew, intellectually, was imaginary, but nonetheless was excruciating, hovering around a few inches above her breasts, as if only moments ago something adhesive—a bandage, duct tape, a baby—had been ripped away from her bare flesh and taken a top layer of cellular material with it.

The latté had scalded her tongue (just the tip) to the point that she could feel, when she moved it across the ridge behind teeth, the rough little bumps of it gone completely dead—just a prickling dullness. Without the taste buds to interfere, Kathy Bliss could really feel the ridge behind the back of her teeth, the place where the bone smoothed into flesh, the difference between what was there for now and what, when she was dead, would be left. She took another sip. Better. Maybe it had cooled down a bit, or maybe her tongue couldn't register the heat of it anymore. That was probably dangerous, she thought. The way people got scalded. Their nerve endings dulled, and they stepped into the tub without knowing it would cook them.

"Sorry," the stranger said after his pant leg brushed her knee, but she didn't really look at him, not yet. His tan belt was at eye level, nothing remarkable about it, and then he was gone.

As was always the case in airports, there was a small crowd of confused people (the elderly, the poor, some foreigners) standing patiently in a line they didn't need to stand in, and a woman behind a counter who was waving them away one by one as they approached her with their fully-sufficient pieces of paper.

"We'll be boarding in forty minutes," the woman said over and over, refusing to smile, make eye contact, or answer questions. The woman had a spectacular hairpiece on top of her head. A kind of beehive with fronds. When she waved, the fronds shivered, caught the light, looking fountain-like, or like incandescent antennas. Although the woman had dark skin (tanning booth?), her real hair was a pale pink-blonde beneath the hairpiece, which was the synthetic blond of a Barbie doll. What had the woman been thinking, Kathy Bliss wondered, that morning at the mirror, placing it atop her head. What had she believed she would look like with that thing on her head? Had she wanted to look the way she did—shocking, alien, a creature out of an illustrated Hans Christian Anderson?

Many years before, when Kathy Bliss was a college student, in an incident that had, she believed, changed and defined her forever, she'd come across a dead body in the Arboretum. A woman. Stabbed. Mostly bones and some scraps of clothing—and she (Kathy Bliss, not the dead woman) had run screaming.

It had been a very quick glimpse, so of course she hadn't known at the time that the body was that of a woman, or that the woman had been stabbed, knew nothing of the details until she was given them later by the police. Still, she knew that she must have stood there open-mouthed for at least a second or two (she had been running on a trail but gone off of it to pee) because she clearly saw, or remembered seeing, that there were bees in that dead woman's hair.

When a few people left the line, a few more entered it. All over the airport, there were such sad, small crowds. They hesitated together at every counter, not ready to believe that all was well, not able to so easily accept the assurance that they already had what they needed, that they had found their proper places so quickly and had only now to wait. Kathy Bliss herself had forced one such crowd to part for her when she entered the terminal, pulling her suitcase on wheels behind her as she made her way to security. She could feel their eyes on her back as she passed, knew they were probably loathing and admiring in equal measure her swift professional purposefulness. She knew where she was going. She'd done this a million times.

But, to her ears anyway, the wheels of her luggage made the sound of a spit turning quickly (but with some effort) over a burning pit, as she dragged it behind her. She had no idea why. They weren't rusty. It was a fairly new bag. It had never been left out in the rain or pulled through the mud. But there it was, the sound of a spit, turning. A pig on that spit. An apple in its mouth. That final humiliation: We shall eat you, Pig.

She couldn't believe it when, at the SAVe a LIFe! picnic that summer, that they'd actually done that, actually roasted a pig on a spit with an apple crammed into its mouth.

At first, she hadn't noticed it because she'd been busy meeting and greeting. ("Yes, yes, of course I remember. Nice to see you again. Thank you for coming.")

But after she'd filled her glass with punch and had just tipped the glass to her lips, she'd seen it out of the corner of her eye, taken one step toward it, seen it fully then, and reeled—literally reeledand splashed pink punch onto her chest, where it trickled down in a sweet zig-zagging rivulet between her breasts.

Luckily, she'd been wearing a low-cut dress, also pink.

"Whoa," the college president she'd been standing next to said when she reeled. "Friend of yours or something? Are you a vegetarian?"

"Jesus," she'd said, "I am now," turning her back to the spit, trying to smile. But there was a cool film of sweat all over her body, as if each pore had opened in a moment, coating her with dew. "What a spectacle."

"Isn't that the point?" the college president had said.

"Because of heightened security measures," the ceiling droned, "we ask that you report any unattended luggage. If a stranger should approach you and ask you to carry a foreign object with you onto a plane, please contact a member of security personnel immediately."

"Excuse me?" the stranger said, taking a seat beside her.

Kathy Bliss turned, swinging her leg off her knee, placing both black boots beside one another on the floor.

"Yes?"

The stranger was young and handsome. He had dark hair and tan skin and large brown eyes. Slender fingers. What appeared to be an actual gold Rolex on his wrist. He was wearing a white shirt with a red tie and a black leather jacket. An Arab, she thought right away, and then felt bad for thinking it. He had no accent; she could tell that already from the two words he'd spoken. He was an American, not an "Arab." He was probably more American than she was, her mother's parents having stumbled into this country from Liverpool, broke, in the 'twenties, her paternal grandparents having dashed across the Canadian border in the 'thirties in search of higher-paying employment with the U.S. Postal Service.

Still, it must be awful, she thought, to look like an Arab in an airport these days. It must have felt, she supposed, like wearing a scarlet A. Everyone staring, either wondering suspiciously about you and feeling guilty about wondering, or feeling suspicious and self-righteous about staring and wondering. "I'm sorry to bother you," the stranger said. "Are you, by any chance, going to Portland?"

"Yes," Kathy Bliss said.

"Well—" he smiled, and then his breast pocket began to play the theme from the Lone Ranger loudly and digitally, and he reached into it and fumbled around for a moment until it stopped and he said, "Sorry," shaking his head. For a crazy second Kathy Bliss thought of asking him to check the caller I.D., to make sure her husband wasn't trying to reach her with some news about the baby (she'd turned her own cell off to conserve the battery, and would check it just before she got on the plane)—but, of course, this stranger had nothing to do with her baby.

"Can I help you?" she asked.

The man had a tiny gold cross in his left earlobe. It was really very beautiful—and strange, too, how masculine that little earring made him look with the dark shadow of beard on his chiseled jawline, and how masculine he made that earring by wearing it in his ear, with its foiled brilliance. A small, bold statement. It might have been a religious statement or a fashion statement, what difference did it make?

"Yes, but please," he said, "if this sounds strange to you, just send me away."

"Okay?" she said. A question.

"Okay," he said. "I'm supposed to be going to Portland for my mother's seventieth birthday, but I just got a call from my girlfriend telling me—" he smiled ruefully, rolled his eyes to the ceiling, "—I'm sorry, I should make something up here, but I'll just tell you the truth: she's pregnant. And she's flipping out. And I feel like," he tossed some emptiness into the air with his palms, making a gesture she'd seen men make many times in response to women's emotional states, "honestly—I think I ought to go buy her an engagement ring today, and get my butt over to her apartment. I mean, this isn't a disaster. Or it doesn't have to be. We were getting married anyway, and we knew we might get pregnant. We weren't even using any—" He shook his head. "I'm sorry, really sorry, to be filling you in on all these details. I'd made it through security, I was planning to just go and come back maybe even tonight, and then I realized—I just realized I shouldn't go at all. That I should go straight back to my girlfriend right now." He inhaled, looked at Kathy Bliss as if trying to gauge her reaction. "I'm sorry," he said, "to fill you, a complete stranger, in on these sordid details."

Kathy Bliss tried to laugh sympathetically. She shook her head a little. Shrugged. "It's okay," she said. "Been there, done that!"

The stranger laughed pretty hard at this. His teeth were very straight and white, although one of the front ones had what looked to be a hairline crack in it. A very thin grey crack. Her two-year old, Connor, had just recently gotten so many new teeth that it surprised her every time he opened his mouth. The teeth were like little dabs of meringue. Clean and white and peaked. She liked to smell his breath. It was as if there were a pure little spring in there. His mouth smelled like mineral water.

"Well, there you have it," the stranger said. "I guess, if nothing else, we're all here because somebody'd been there and done that."

"That, too," Kathy Bliss said. "But, I mean, I have a child. It's a great thing."

"Yeah," he said. "I'm starting to forget, in all this hysteria, the great fact that I'm going to be a dad—"

"Well, congratulations from me," Kathy Bliss said. She felt the warm implication of tears starting somewhere around her sinuses, and swallowed. She changed her latté cup from her right hand to her left, reached over the metal armrest, and offered it to him. He shook it, smiling. Then he shook his own hand as if it had been burned. "Jeez," he said, "that's one burning handshake."

"My latté," she said. "It's like molten lava."

"I guess so," he said.

The stranger was wearing khaki pants with very precisely ironed creases. For a quick second Kathy Bliss wondered if his girlfriend was also an Arab, and then she remembered that she had no way of knowing that he was an Arab, and far more evidence, anyway, that he wasn't—and reminded herself that it didn't matter anyway. So, maybe his parents had been born in Egypt, or Iran. The color of his skin was beautiful! A warm milky brown. She felt a pang of jealousy about the girlfriend, lying on their bed at home, not knowing that this beautiful stranger was making desperate plans to buy her a diamond that day. What a thing, this life. Love. God, when it worked, it really worked! She had, herself, fallen in love with her husband upon first sight. She'd been given his name as the best shrink in town for the kind of problem she was having—which was spending every minute of her day trying not to think about the dead body in the Arboretum for two solid years after she'd seen it—and she had no sooner settled herself in the chair across from his, and he'd crossed his legs, looking more anxious and frightened than she, herself, the patient, felt, that she knew she wanted to marry him. And he'd cured her, too. Without drugs. A few behavior modifications. A rubber band around her wrist, a mantra, a series of self-punishments and rewards.

"Well, to make a long story short," the stranger said, "my girlfriend's freaking out back at our apartment, and my mother's turning seventy in Portland, and I'm her only son, who's such a scoundrel and an ingrate, not to mention morally reprehensible for impregnating someone he's not married to, yet, that he's not even showing up for her party, so—" and here he shook his head and looked directly into Kathy Bliss's eyes, "I wonder if I, a stranger, could ask you, a passenger, to carry a foreign object with you onto the plane?"

"Oh my God," Kathy Bliss said. "All these years I was wondering if anyone was ever going to ask me that."

"I think," the stranger said, "now is the point at which you ought to contact security personnel—like, right away."

"Yes," she said, "I think I may have heard an announcement pertaining to that. And I've always wondered to myself what kind of idiot would actually do such a thing, like carry a foreign object onto a plane."

"Well," the stranger said, "here's the object you've been waiting your whole life to carry with you onto the plane."

Out of a pocket in the inner lining of his coat, the stranger produced a narrow rectangular box wrapped in gold paper. He sighed. "It's a gold necklace, and if you'd be so foolhardy as to carry it with you onto the plane, I'd call my brother and have him meet you at baggage claim and get it to the party this evening. But," he waved his slender fingers around over the box, "I totally understand if you think that's nuts."

"I have no problem with it," she said. "Don't worry, I won't contact security personnel."

"Let me open it for you, at least," he said, "so you know you're not carrying a bomb—"

"If you managed to get a bomb in that little package," she said, "you deserve to have it carried by a passenger onto the plane."

She regretted the joke even as she said it, saw the towers dissolving into dust on her television again. It had been on the floor because the entertainment center had not yet arrived (it was being custom-built somewhere in Illinois) and there was no table or counter big enough to put the television on. The baby was crying (eight weeks old), so she'd had to stand and pace with his hot little face leaking tears onto her shoulders as those towers collapsed at her feet. The front door had been open, and it had smelled to her as if the stone-blue perfect sky out there were dissolving in talcumish particles of dried flowers—such a beautiful day it horrified her. An illusion dipped in blue. She could have walked with her baby straight out the front door or right into the big-screen T.V. of it, and they might have turned, themselves, into nothing but subatomic particles, blue light, perfume.

There was nothing funny about terrorism. Nothing even remotely funny about terrorism. Still, she was from the Midwest, and it seemed like a long time ago already. No more National Guard in the airport—those boys with their big weapons trying not to look bored and out of place around every corner. She had, herself, only been to New York a few times, and never to those towers, having only glimpsed them from her plane as it banked into LaGuardia. From the plane, they'd looked like Legos, and no matter how real she knew it all was, on the television, on the floor, it had not looked real. And the least likely plane a terrorist would want to blow up or hijack was one traveling from Grand Rapids, Michigan, to Portland, Maine. Right? "Don't unwrap that," she said. "It's exquisite. I trust you."

"I insist," he said. "This is too weird and too much of a...cliché! I have my dignity!" He laughed. "And in any case, I will doubt your sanity if you don't let me open it. I can't have a crazy woman delivering my mother's birthday present—"

"No," Kathy Bliss said, snatching the little present off his lap. "You'll never get it wrapped like this again. It's like a little dream. I'd be insane if I thought you could get anything but a necklace in that box."

He made his mouth into a zero, and sighed, loosened his tie a little by inserting his index finger between the knot and his collar. From somewhere on the other side of the wall of screens that listed arrivals and departures, a baby began to cry, and the feeling came back to her—the ripping, intensely, as if yet another layer of skin, or whatever was underneath her skin, were being pulled off her torso in one quick yank. The stranger took the cell phone out of his pocket and said, "I'll call my brother. Can I tell him your name? I'll have him at baggage claim—I mean," he interrupted himself here, "I'm assuming that's where you'll be going—" he looked at the black bag at her feet—"Did you check luggage?"

"Yes," she said. "I mean, no. But I can go to baggage claim, no problem. Tell him—"

"I'll have him carry a sign, with your name it, okay?"

"Yes. Kathy Bliss."

"Bliss?" He smiled. "Like, 'bliss?'"

"Yes," she said. "Like the Joseph Campbell thing. 'Follow your bliss.'"

He smiled, but she could tell he hadn't heard of Joseph Campbell, or the advice of Joseph Campbell. She had, herself, been in graduate school when the PBS series with Bill Moyers had aired, and gotten together every Tuesday night with a group of women from her Mind, Brain, and Violence Seminar to watch it. A lot of joking about Bliss, and following it, had been made. When she'd get up to go to the bathroom or to get a beer out of the refrigerator, someone always pretended to follow her.

"We would like to begin boarding passengers on Flight 5236 to Portland, Maine. Passengers traveling with small children or needing special assistance..."

"That's me," she said.

"Yes," he said. "Of course. I'll make the call after you board. But let me tell you, my brother—he's twenty-two, but he looks a lot like me. I haven't seen him in a year, and sometimes he has long hair and sometimes he shaves his head, so," he shrugged, "who knows. But he's about 5'9", 160 pounds—"

Kathy Bliss slipped the gold-wrapped box into her black bag carefully, so he could see that he could trust her with it. "Well," she said, "he'll have my name on a piece of paper, right? It'll be simple."

"Am I right, the plane's supposed to land at 12:51?" the stranger asked, peeking into the inner lining of his suit coat again, as if to look at his own unnecessary itinerary.

"Yep," she said. "12:51, assuming we're on time."

"Here," he said, hurrying with a piece of paper and a pen he'd taken from the pocket of his suitcoat, "my brother's name is Mack Kaloustian. He'll be there. Or I'll kill him, and he knows it."

Kaloustian. Armenian. Kathy Bliss blinked and saw a spray of bullets raking through a family in a stand of trees on a mountain top, a mother shielding her child, collapsing onto him: That child might have been this stranger's grandmother. And then they were boarding her row—12. Kathy Bliss stood up and extended her hand to the stranger. "Good luck to you," she said with all the warmth she could generate with only four words. The second word, luck, caught in her throat—a little emotional fishhook made out of consonants—because it was all so lovely, and simple, and lucky. Nothing but goodness in it for anyone. And her part in this sweet small drama moved her deeply, too—this gesture she was making of pure human camaraderie, this non-profit venture, this small recognition of the cliché we're all in this together. That it mattered. Love. Family. The stranger. The favor. The bond of trust between them. He knew she wouldn't disappear into Portland with his gold necklace. She knew he wouldn't—what? Send her onto a plane with an explosive? He shook her hand so warmly it was like a hug. He said, "I can't tell you how much I appreciate this," and she said, "Of course. I'm happy to be able to help," and then she walked backwards so she could extend the moment of their smiling and parting, and then turned, inhaling, and began the dull and claustrophobic process of boarding her plane.

Kathy Bliss had been born and raised in a little stone house at the edge of a deep forest. "Honest to god," she always had to say after giving someone this piece of information about herself for the first time. "But it was nothing like you're imagining."

Her father had worked for a minimum security prison, and the prison had been the thing her bedroom window faced, its high cyclone fencing topped by hundreds of yards of coiled barbed wire. In the summer, the sun rising in the east over the prison turned that barbed wire into a blinding fretwork, all spun-sugar and baroque and glitter, as if the air had been embroidered with silver thread by a gifted witch. She'd squint at it pretending that what her bedroom faced was an enchanted castle, as if the little stone house at the edge of the dark forest really were something from a fairytale. But it was a sedentary childhood. Her parents wouldn't let her play in the yard or wait outside for the bus because, if there were an escape, she would make too good a hostage, being the prison director's daughter. For this reason, Kathy Bliss rarely had the chance to see the prisoners milling around behind that barbed wire, wearing their orange jumpsuits, and was able, therefore, to imagine them handsome and gallant as knights.

She and her mother had moved, when Kathy was nine, after her father died from an illness that announced itself first as bleeding gums, and then paralysis, and then he was just gone. She was thinking about this blip in her first years—the stone house, the barbed wire castle—and watching the other passengers struggle onto the plane, shoving their heavy luggage into overhead compartments, the fat ones sweating, the thin ones trembling, the mothers with babies and little children looking blissfully burdened, when a voice came over the plane's intercom and said, "If there is a Katherine Bliss on board, could she please press the flight attendant call button now?"

"Oh my God," Kathy Bliss said so loudly that an old woman standing in the aisle next to her whirled around and hit the call button for her. "Is that you?" the old woman said, as if she knew what they were calling Kathy Bliss about, as if everyone knew. "Yes," she said. "I forgot to check my messages." "Oh dear," the old woman said. The skin hung off her face in grey rags, and yet she'd made herself up carefully that morning, with tastefully understated foundation and blush, the kind of replica of life that would cause all gathered around her casket to say, "She just looks as if she's sleeping." There began a cold trickling at the tip of Kathy Bliss's spine, and then it turned into a fine mist coating every inch of her. She could not close her mouth. She tried to stand, but there were so many people in the aisle she couldn't get out of her seat, although the old woman had turned to face the strangers surging forward and put a bony arm in front of her as if to try to block their passage. "Ma'am," a flight attendant said from ten feet behind that line, looking at the old woman. "Are you Mrs. Bliss?"

"No," the old woman said, and pointed to Kathy. "This is Mrs. Bliss."

"We have a message for you, Mrs. Bliss," the flight attendant called over the shoulders of the passengers in the aisle. She was a huge blonde beauty, a Norse goddess. Someone who might stand on a mountain-peak with a bolt of lightning in her fist. The crowd in the aisle dissolved to make way for her, and she pressed a folded piece of paper into Kathy Bliss shaking hand: Baby in hospital. Call home now. Husband.

It was a week later—after the long pale nights at his crib-side in the hospital, taking turns pretending to sleep as the other paced, the tests, and the antibiotics, and the failure of the first ones to fight off the infection, and the terrifying night when the baby didn't wake during his injection, and they could clearly see the residency doctor's hand shaking as he punched the emergency button. It was after they'd begun a whole new life on the children's floor. Sesame Street in the lounge all day, as if the world were being run by benevolent toys, and then CNN scrolling its silent, redundant messages to them all night below images of the cynical and maimed. After they'd gotten to know the nurses. It was after Kathy Bliss had fallen in love, madly, with one doctor after another—not a sexual love, but a deep wild worship of the archetype, a reverent adulation of the Healer—and then grown to despise them one by one, and then to see them merely as human beings. It was after she'd spent some self-conscious moments on her knees in the hospital chapel, which turned into deep semi-conscious communions with the Almighty as the hospital intercom called out its mundane codes and locations in the hallway behind her—and the baby was taking fluids, and then solids, and then given a signature of release, and the nurses hugged Kathy Bliss and her husband, and let their hands wave magically, baptismally, over the head of the baby, who laughed, sputtered, still a little weak, scarlet-cheeked, but very much of this world, and cured for the next leg of the journey into the future, when they packed up the stuffed animals and picture books and headed for home—it was after all these events had come to an end that Kathy Bliss remembered the foreign object, given to her by the stranger, which had stayed where she'd tucked it into her carry-on luggage, where she'd left it in the hallway of her house, tossed under a table, in a panic, on her brief stop there between the airport and the hospital.

Garrett had gone to work, and the baby was napping in a patch of sunlight that poured green and gold through the front door onto the living room floor. It was a warm late-summer day. The phone had been unplugged the night before, and stayed that way. She hadn't turned the television on once since they'd come home. The silence swelled and receded in a manner that would have been imperceivable to her only two weeks before, but which now seemed sacred, full of implication, a kind of immaculate tableau rolled out over the neighborhood in the middle of the day when no one was anywhere, and only the cats crossed the streets, padding in considerate quiet on their starry little paws. She glanced at the black bag.

She got down on her knees and pulled the bag to her, and removed the umbrella, and the pink make-up bag, and the folded black sweater, the brother's name, Mack Kaloustian (but hadn't the stranger said he was his mother's only son?), and saw it there, the box, in its gold paper, and recognized it only vaguely, as neither a gift nor a recrimination, a threat or a blessing.

She didn't open it, but imagined herself opening it. Imagined herself as a passenger on that plane, unable to resist it. Holding it to her ear. Shaking it, maybe. Lifting the edge of the gold paper, tearing it away from the box. And then, the certain, brilliant cataclysm that would follow. The lurching of unsteady weight in the sky, and then the inertia, followed by tumbling. The numbing sensation of great speed and realization in your face. She'd been a fool to take it with her onto the plane. It could have killed them all.

Or, the simple gold braid of it.

Tasteful. Elegant. A thoughtful gift chosen by a devoted son for his beloved mother. And she imagined taking the necklace out of the box, holding it up to her own neck at the mirror, admiring the glint of it around her neck—this bit of love and brevity snatched from the throat of a stranger—wearing it with an evening gown, passing it down as an heirloom to her children:

Who was to say, she thought to herself as she began to peel the gold paper away, that something stolen, without malice or intent, is any less yours than something you've been given?

From If A Stranger Approaches You by Laura Kasischke. Copyright 2013 by Laura Kasischke. Reprinted by permission of Sarabande Books.