You Are Released
Written by Joe Hill and narrated by Corey Stoll

  [ This story takes place on a commercial airplane. If you haven't flown on an airplane, seats are often grouped into sections - such as a deluxe section, 'Business', and a basic section, 'Coach.'

ADVISORY: Contains adult language, adult situations, and a character with racist views. This is a scary story]


Holder is on his third Scotch and playing it cool about the famous woman sitting next to him when all the TVs in the cabin go black and a message in white block text appears on the screens. AN ANNOUCEMENT IS IN PROGRESS.

Static hisses from the public address system. The pilot has a young voice, the voice of an uncertain teenager addressing a crowd at a funeral.

“Folks, this is Captain Waters. I’ve had a message from our team on the ground, and after thinking it over, it seems proper to share it with you. There’s been an incident at Andersen Air Force Base in Guam and—”

The PA cuts out. There is a long, suspenseful silence.

“—I am told,” Waters continues abruptly, “that U.S. Strategic Command is no longer in contact with our forces there or with the regional governor’s office. There are reports from off-shore that—that there was a flash. Some kind of flash.”

Holder unconsciously presses himself back into his seat, as if in response to a jolt of turbulence. What the hell does that mean, there was a flash? Flash of what? So many things can flash in this world. A girl can flash a bit of leg. A high roller can flash his money. Lightning flashes. Your whole life can flash before your eyes. Can Guam flash? An entire island?

“Just say if they were nuked, please,” murmurs the famous woman on his left in that well-bred, moneyed, honeyed voice of hers.

Captain Waters continues, “I’m sorry I don’t know more and that what I do know is so…” His voice trails off again.

“Appalling?” the famous woman suggests. “Disheartening? Dismaying? Shattering?”

“Worrisome,” Waters finishes.

“Fine,” the famous woman says, with a certain dissatisfaction.

“That’s all I know right now,” Waters says. “We’ll share more information with you as it comes in. At this time we’re cruising at thirty-seven thousand feet and we’re about halfway through your flight. We should arrive in Boston a little ahead of schedule.”

There’s a scraping sound and a sharp click and the monitors start playing films again. About half the people in business class are watching the same superhero movie, Captain America throwing his shield like a steel-edged Frisbee, cutting down grotesques that look like they just crawled out from under the bed.

A black girl of about nine or ten sits across the aisle from Holder. She looks at her mother and says, in a voice that carries, “Where is Guam, precisely?” Her use of the word “precisely” tickles Holder, it’s so teacherly and unchildlike.

The girl’s mother says, “I don’t know, sweetie. I think it’s near Hawaii.” She isn’t looking at her daughter. She’s glancing this way and that with a bewildered expression, as if reading an invisible text for instructions. How to discuss a nuclear exchange with your child.

“It’s closer to Taiwan,” Holder says, leaning across the aisle to address the child.

“Just south of Korea,” adds the famous woman.

“I wonder how many people live there,” Holder says.

The celebrity arches an eyebrow. “You mean as of this moment? Based on the report we just heard, I should think very few.”




The violinist Fidelman has an idea the very pretty, very sick-looking teenage girl sitting next to him is Korean. Every time she slips her headphones off—to speak to a flight attendant, or to listen to the recent announcement—he’s heard what sounds like K-Pop coming from her Samsung. Fidelman himself was in love with a Korean for several years, a man ten years his junior, who loved comic books and played a brilliant if brittle viol, and who killed himself by stepping in front of a Red Line train. His name was So as in “so it goes,” or “so there we are” or “little Miss So-and-So” or “so what do I do now?” So’s breath was always sweet, like almond milk, and his eyes were always shy, and it embarrassed him to be happy. Fidelman always thought So was happy, right up to the day he leapt like a ballet dancer into the path of a 52-ton engine.

Fidelman wants to offer the girl comfort and at the same time doesn’t want to intrude on her anxiety. He mentally wrestles with what to say, if anything, and finally nudges her gently. When she pops out her earbuds, he says, “Do you need something to drink? I’ve got half a can of Coke that I haven’t touched. It isn’t germy, I’ve been drinking from the glass.”

She shows him a small, frightened smile. “Thank you. My insides are all knotted up.”

She takes the can and has a swallow.

“If your stomach is upset, the fizz will help,” he says. “I’ve always said that on my deathbed, the last thing I want to taste before I leave this world is a cold Coca-Cola.” Fidelman has said this exact thing to others, many times before, but as soon as it’s out of his mouth, he wishes he could have it back. Under the circumstances, it strikes him as a rather infelicitous sentiment.

“I’ve got family there,” she says.

“In Guam?”

“In Korea,” she says and shows him the nervous smile again. The pilot never said anything about Korea in his announcement, but anyone who’s watched CNN in the last three weeks knows that’s what this is about.

“Which Korea?” says the big man on the other side of the aisle. “The good one or the bad one?”

The big man wears an offensively red turtleneck that brings out the color in his honeydew melon of a face. He’s so large, he overspills his seat. The woman sitting next to him—a small, black-haired lady with the high-strung intensity of an overbred greyhound—has been crowded close to the window. There’s an enamel American flag pin in the lapel of his suit coat. Fidelman already knows they could never be friends.

The girl gives the big man a startled glance and smooths her dress over her thighs. “South Korea,” she says, declining to play his game of good versus bad. “My brother just got married in Jeju. I’m on my way back to school.”

“Where’s school?” Fidelman asks.


“I’m surprised you could get in,” says the big man. “They’ve got to draft a certain number of unqualified inner city kids to meet their quota. That means a lot less space for people like you.”

“People like what?” Fidelman asks, enunciating slowly and deliberately. People. Like. What? Nearly fifty years of being gay has taught Fidelman that it is a mistake to let certain statements pass unchallenged.

The big man is unashamed. “People who are qualified. People who earned it. People who can do the arithmetic. There’s a lot more to math than counting out change when someone buys a dime bag. A lot of the model immigrant communities have suffered because of quotas. The Orientals especially.”

Fidelman laughs—sharp, strained, disbelieving laughter. But the M.I.T. girl closes her eyes and is still and Fidelman opens his mouth to tell the big son-of-a-bitch off and then shuts it again. It would be unkind to the girl to make a scene.

“It’s Guam, not Seoul,” Fidelman tells her. “And we don’t know what happened there. It might be anything. It might be an explosion at a power station. A normal accident and not a… catastrophe of some sort.” The first word that occurred to him was holocaust.

“Dirty bomb,” says the big man. “Bet you a hundred dollars. He’s upset because we just missed him in Russia.”

He is the Supreme Leader of the DPRK. There are rumors someone took a shot at him while he was on a state visit to the Russian side of Lake Khasan, a body of water on the border between the two nations. There are unconfirmed reports that he was hit in the shoulder, hit in the knee, not hit at all; that a diplomat beside him was hit and killed; that one of the Supreme Leader’s impersonators was killed. According to the Internet the assassin was either a radical anti-Putin anarchist, or a C.I.A. agent masquerading as a member of the Associated Press, or a K-Pop star named Extra Value Meal. The U.S. State Department and the North Korean media, in a rare case of agreement, insist there were no shots fired during the Supreme Leader’s visit to Russia, no assassination attempt at all. Like many following the story, Fidelman takes this to mean the Supreme Leader came very close to dying indeed.

It is also true that eight days ago, a U.S. submarine patrolling the Sea of Japan shot down a North Korean test missile in North Korean airspace. A DPRK spokesman called it an act of war and promised to retaliate in kind. Well, no. He had promised to fill the mouths of every American with ashes. The Supreme Leader himself didn’t say anything. He hasn’t been seen since the assassination attempt that didn’t happen.

“They wouldn’t be that stupid,” Fidelman says to the big man, talking across the Korean girl. “Think about what would happen.”

The small, wiry, dark-haired woman stares at the big man sitting beside her with a slavish pride, and Fidelman suddenly realizes why she tolerates his paunch intruding on her personal space. They’re together. She loves him. Perhaps adores him.

The big man replies, placidly, “Hundred dollars.”




North Dakota is somewhere beneath them but all Waters can see is a hilly expanse of cloud stretching to the horizon. Waters has never visited North Dakota and when he tries to visualize it, imagines rusting antique farm equipment, Billy Bob Thornton, and furtive acts of buggery in grain silos. On the radio, the controller in Minneapolis instructs a 737 to ascend to flight level three-six-zero and increase speed to Mach Seven Eight.

“Ever been to Guam?” asks his first officer, with a false fragile cheer.

Waters has never flown with a female co-pilot before and can hardly bear to look at her, she is so heart-breakingly beautiful. Face like that, she ought to be on magazine covers. Up until the moment he met her in the conference room at LAX, two hours before they flew, he didn’t know anything about her except her name was Bronson. He had been picturing someone like the guy in the original Death Wish.

“Been to Hong Kong,” Waters says, wishing she wasn’t so terribly lovely.

Waters is in his mid-forties and looks about nineteen, a slim man with red hair cut to a close bristle and a map of freckles on his face. He is only just married and soon to be a father: a photo of his gourd-ripe wife in a sundress has been clipped to the dash. He doesn’t want to be attracted to anyone else. He feels ashamed of even spotting a handsome woman. At the same time, he doesn’t want to be cold, formal, distant. He’s proud of his airline for employing more female pilots, wants to approve, to support. All gorgeous women are an affliction upon his soul. “Sydney. Taiwan. Not Guam, though.”

“Me and friends used to freedive off Fai Fai beach. Once I got close enough to a blacktip shark to pet it. Freediving naked is the only thing better than flying.”

The word naked goes through him like a jolt from a joy buzzer. That’s his first reaction. His second reaction is that of course she knows Guam, she’s ex-navy, which is where she learned to fly. When he glances at her sidelong, he’s shocked to find tears in her eyelashes.

Kate Bronson catches his gaze and gives him a crooked embarrassed grin that shows the slight gap between her two front teeth. He tries to imagine her with a shaved head and dog tags. It isn’t hard. For all her cover girl looks, there is something slightly feral underneath, something wiry and reckless about her.

“I don’t know why I’m crying. I haven’t been there in ten years. It’s not like I have any friends there.”

Waters considers several possible reassuring statements, and discards each in turn. There is no kindness in telling her it might not be as bad as she thinks, when, in fact, it is likely to be far worse.

There’s a rap at the door. Bronson hops up, wipes her cheeks with the back of her hand, glances through the peephole, turns the bolts.

It’s Vorstenbosch, the senior flight attendant, a plump, effete man with wavy blond hair, a fussy manner, and small eyes behind his thick gold-framed glasses. He’s calm, professional, and pedantic when sober, and a potty-mouthed swishy delight when drunk.

“Did someone nuke Guam?” he asks, without preamble.

“I don’t have anything from the ground except we’ve lost contact,” Waters says.

“What’s that mean, specifically?” Vorstenbosch asks. “I’ve got a planeload of very frightened people and nothing to tell them.”

Bronson thumps her head, ducking behind the controls to sit back down. Waters pretends not to see. He pretends not to notice her hands are shaking.

“It means—” Waters begins, but there’s an alert tone, and then the controller is on with a message for everyone in ZMP airspace. The voice from Minnesota is sandy, smooth, untroubled. He might be talking about nothing more important than a region of high pressure. They’re taught to sound that way.

“This is Minneapolis Center with high priority instructions for all aircraft on this frequency, be advised we have received instructions from U.S. Strategic Command to clear this airspace for operations from Ellsworth. We will begin directing all flights to the closest appropriate airport. Repeat, we are grounding all commercial and recreational aircraft in the ZMP. Please remain alert and ready to respond promptly to our instructions.” There is a momentary hiss and then, with what sounds like real regret, Minneapolis adds, “Sorry about this, ladies and gents. Uncle Sam needs the sky this afternoon for an unscheduled world war.”

“Ellsworth Airport?” Vorstenbosch says. “What do they have at Ellsworth Airport?”

“The 28th Bomb Wing,” Bronson says, rubbing her head.




The plane banks steeply and Veronica D’Arcy looks straight down at the rumpled duvet of cloud beneath. Shafts of blinding sunshine stab through the windows on the other side of the cabin. The good-looking drunk beside her—he has a loose lock of dark hair on his brow that makes her think of Cary Grant, of Clark Kent—unconsciously squeezes his armrests. She wonders if he’s a white-knuckle flier, or just a boozer. He had his first Scotch as soon as they reached cruising altitude, three hours ago, just after ten A.M.

The screens go black and another ANNOUNCEMENT IS IN PROGRESS. Veronica shuts her eyes to listen, focusing the way she might at a table read as another actor reads lines for the first time.



Hello, passengers, Captain Waters again. I’m afraid we’ve had an unexpected request from air traffic control to reroute to Fargo and put down at Hector International Airport. We’ve been asked to clear this airspace, effective immediately—

(uneasy beat)

—for military maneuvers. Obviously the situation in Guam has created, um, complications for everyone in the sky today. There’s no reason for alarm, but we are going to have to put down. We expect to be on the ground in Fargo in forty minutes. I’ll have more information for you as it comes in.


My apologies, folks. This isn’t the afternoon any of us was hoping for.


If it were a movie, the captain wouldn’t sound like a teenage boy going through the worst of adolescence. They would’ve cast someone gruff and authoritative. Hugh Jackman maybe. Or a Brit, if they wanted to suggest erudition, a hint of Oxford-acquired wisdom. Derek Jacobi perhaps.

Veronica has acted alongside Derek off and on for almost thirty years. He held her backstage the night her mother died and talked her through it in a gentle, reassuring murmur. An hour later they were both dressed as Romans in front of four hundred and eighty people and God he was good that night, and she was good too, and that was the evening she learned she could act her way through anything, and she can act her way through this, too. Inside, she is already growing calmer, letting go of all cares, all concern. It has been years since she felt anything she didn’t decide to feel first.

“I thought you were drinking too early,” she says to the man beside her. “It turns out I started drinking too late.” She lifts the little plastic cup of wine she was served with her lunch, and says “chin-chin” before draining it.

He turns a lovely, easy smile upon her. “I’ve never been to Fargo although I did watch the TV show.” He narrows his eyes. “Were you in Fargo? I feel like you were. You did something with forensics and then Ewan McGregor strangled you to death.”

“No, darling. You’re thinking of Contract: Murder and it was James McAvoy with a garrote.”

“So it was. I knew I saw you die once. Do you die a lot?”

“Oh all the time. I did a picture with Richard Harris, it took him all day to bludgeon me to death with a candlestick. Five set-ups, forty takes. Poor man was exhausted by the end of it.”

Her seatmate’s eyes bulge and she knows he’s seen the picture and remembers her role. She was twenty-two at the time and naked in every scene, no exaggeration. Veronica’s daughter once asked, “Mom, when exactly did you discover clothing?” Veronica had replied, “Right after you were born, darling.”

Veronica’s daughter is beautiful enough to be in movies herself but she makes hats instead. When Veronica thinks of her, her chest aches with pleasure. She never deserved to have such a sane, happy, grounded daughter. When Veronica considers herself—when she reckons with her own selfishness and narcissism, her indifference to mothering, her preoccupation with her career—it seems impossible that she should have such a good person in her life.

“I’m Gregg,” says her neighbor. “Gregg Holder.”

“Veronica D’Arcy.”

“What brought you to L.A.? A part? Or do you live there?”

“I had to be there for the apocalypse. I play a wise old woman of the wasteland. I assume it will be a wasteland. All I saw was a green screen. I hope the real apocalypse will hold off long enough for the film to come out. Do you think it will?”

Gregg looks out at the landscape of cloud. “Sure. It’s North Korea, not China. What can they hit us with? No apocalypse for us. For them maybe.”

“How many people live in North Korea?” This from the girl on the other side of the aisle, the one with the comically huge glasses. She has been listening to them intently and is leaning toward them now in a very adult way.

Her mother gives Gregg and Veronica a tight smile, and pats her daughter’s arm. “Don’t disturb the other passengers, dear.”

“She’s not disturbing me,” Gregg says. “I don’t know, kid. But a lot of them live on farms, scattered across the countryside. There’s only the one big city I think. Whatever happens, I’m sure most of them will be okay.”

The girl sits back and considers this, then twists in her seat to whisper to her mother. Her mother squeezes her eyes shut and shakes her head. Veronica wonders if she even knows she is still patting her daughter’s arm.

“I have a girl about her age,” Gregg says.

“I have a girl about your age,” Veronica tells him. “She’s my favorite thing in the world.”

“Yep. Me too. My daughter, I mean, not yours. I’m sure yours is great as well.”

“Are you headed home to her?”

“Yes. My wife called to ask if I would cut a business trip short. My wife is in love with a man she met on Facebook and she wants me to come take care of the kid so she can drive up to Toronto to meet him.”

“Oh my God. You’re not serious. Did you have any warning?”

“I thought she was spending too much time online, but to be fair, she thought I was spending too much time being drunk. I guess I’m an alcoholic. I guess I might have to do something about that now. I think I’ll start by finishing this.” And he swallows the last of his Scotch.

Veronica has been divorced—twice—and has always been keenly aware that she herself was the primary agent of domestic ruin. When she thinks about how badly she behaved, how badly she used Robert and François, she feels ashamed and angry at herself, and so she is naturally glad to offer sympathy and solidarity to the wronged man beside her. Any opportunity to atone, no matter how small.

“I’m so sorry. What a terrible bomb to have dropped on you.”

“What did you say?” asks the girl across the aisle, leaning toward them again. The deep brown eyes behind those glasses never seem to blink. “Are we going to drop a nuclear bomb on them?”

She sounds more curious than afraid, but at this, her mother exhales a sharp, panicked breath.

Gregg leans toward the child again, smiling in a way that is both kindly and wry, and Veronica suddenly wishes she were twenty years younger. She might’ve been good for a fellow like him.

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