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Panic gripped her as the airplane’s hatch door closed. Her heartbeat skittered against the tightness stretched across her chest. The air tasted stale, harder to take in as her breathing turned rapid and shallow. A thin sheen of sweat dampened her face and coated her body. Her skin stuck to the seat’s faux leather upholstery like adhesive. Becky Gerard thought to herself: I’ve made a terrible mistake.
A composed flight attendant, appropriately attired in a blue uniform with a matching silk scarf, spoke through an intercom.
“Ladies and gentlemen, my name is Katrina, and I’ll be your chief flight attendant on this six-and-a-half-hour flight from Boston’s Logan Airport to Los Angeles. The cabin doors are now closed, so kindly make sure your seat backs and tray tables are in their full upright positions and your seat belt is securely fastened low and tight across your lap. Also, please note at this time we respectfully ask that you power down and store all portable electronic devices until we’ve reached our cruising altitude.”
Becky focused on the portable electronic device clutched in her hand. Instead of powering it down, she held the device low against her leg to keep it out of Katrina’s sight. The phone was Becky’s lifeline to the outside world, her conduit to what mattered most—her daughter, Meghan.
The plane jolted as it pulled away from the gate and soon after began a slow taxi toward the runway. The pit in Becky’s stomach deepened. She waited for a text, some reply from Carl, her gaze fixed on the phone.
Her seatmate, a pleasant fortysomething man, took note of Becky’s open defiance with a degree of amusement. “I’ll shield you,” the man said in a conspiratorial tone.
Becky glanced up to thank him. He gave her a warm, friendly smile, nothing more. It was rare for her to sit next to a man and not feel his desire. She was tall, annoyingly thin to some outspoken friends, with long, flowing blond hair and sharp blue eyes that called attention to her nicely symmetrical face, very much the prototypical California girl—which happened to be her home state.
At forty-eight, Becky could easily pass for a woman a decade younger, but these last few years of Meghan’s illness had begun to take a toll on her youthful appearance. There were gray streaks camouflaged in her blond mane, and crow’s-feet marked the edges of her blue eyes, deep enough that it looked as though the birds themselves had perched there at night while she slept. Still, men found her attractive, lusted after her, convinced themselves that she could not resist their charms. She understood the sway she held over some men—most men—but she was always strategic in the application of this power of hers.
Her seatmate was the rare breed who gave off no creep factor whatsoever, so she could keep her attention on her phone and not be distracted by him. Carl, her husband of twenty years, should have answered her by now. How hard was it to text Meghan’s fine or We’re fine or No worries, safe travels xo, anything of the sort, but it had been ages (well, more like thirty minutes) since she’d sent her last probing text, and his radio silence was deeply unsettling. He knew how nervous she was to leave Meghan. She’d been up all night with worry, and he’d promised to respond right away whenever she texted him.
Why isn’t he answering now?
The flight attendant patrolled the aisle with the watchful eye of a prison guard. Becky slumped farther forward to block her phone as she typed another message to Carl: Plane leaving. Where are you? What’s going on?
That voice in Becky’s head, the one that had told her not to go to California in the first place, spoke up again to issue stern admonishments of how long the flight was from Boston. She’d be thousands of miles from her daughter. It was stupid to think she could go there without feeling perpetually sick to her stomach. But what other choice did she have? Her mother was dying. According to her sister, Sabrina, her only sibling, it was a matter of days.
“I know you have your issues, we both do, but she’s our mother,” Sabrina had said during yesterday’s phone call. “You should come home.”
The truth was, Becky did want to be with Cora in her final moments. She wanted to hold her mother’s hand, console her, be there for her despite all the insanity, the layers of hurt that, like geological strata, had marked the epochs of her journey into adulthood.
Even with years and distance between them, Becky could not escape her mother’s long shadow. Though the cancer had taken her mother’s voice, that voice still rang loudly in Becky’s ears. If she wasn’t chiding her, she was either critiquing her or ignoring her.
Did her mother have a mental illness? If so, none had ever been diagnosed, but Becky had done plenty of research over the years, not to mention countless hours spent in the therapist’s armchair, trying to understand Cora’s ambivalence toward motherhood. The bits of wisdom Becky got growing up were not the kind a normal mother would have imparted.
“You have to figure out their doubts and fears, try to use their pasts to your advantage,” her mother had once said while explaining how to manipulate people. They were in a doctor’s office at the time. Then again, they were always in some doctor’s office.
“Look on the wall.” She pointed to the pictures that hung in pretty silver frames. “There isn’t a woman in any of them, just him and his two daughters. Is he a widow? Divorced? Could be he’s lonely, or his confidence has been shattered. That’s good for us. We can use it. See how one of his daughters looks like you?” She had pointed out a blond girl who looked to be ten, the same age as Becky at the time. “We’ll tell him we’re new to town, don’t know our way around yet, wondering about schools and such. He’ll think of his own daughter when he looks at you, and it’ll make him want to be extra helpful. So when we ask for a doctor’s note—for my work, I’ll say—he won’t think twice about writing one, even though he hasn’t reached any diagnosis yet.”
Her mother did not actually have a job. Her job was getting those notes from the doctors she had taught Becky to manipulate. She did not show Becky how to braid her hair or brush out the tangles. There were no lectures on healthy eating. “You ask around, you’ll figure it out,” her mother had said when Becky inquired where babies came from. Her mother’s love was dished out like food rations, given only in times of great need. And it seemed the only time that need arose was when Becky was with her mother at the doctor’s office or a hospital. Becky accompanied her mother on these frequent sojourns as nothing more than a prop—something cute and little to evoke sympathy and dispel suspicion from the doctors and nurses whom Cora had come to depend on for her disability checks.
Like an actress in a play, Becky had her lines down cold, coached by her mother, who was both the director and her harshest critic, which made her so believable when answering the doctors’ questions.
Yes, I’ve seen Mommy faint a bunch of times.
Sometimes Mommy’s headaches are so bad that she can’t see straight.
Not surprisingly, for all the trips they made to the doctors over the years, nobody could ever figure out what was wrong with Cora, because nothing was ever wrong.
Now Becky was off to say goodbye to this damaged and damaging woman, worried it would be to the detriment of the sick daughter she’d left behind.
Becky bit her lower lip as she stared forlornly at the squat gray buildings that appeared to be rolling past her portal window. Of course, it was an illusion. Becky was the one moving, not the buildings, which meant she was leaving, that this was really happening. She was going to fly, and there was still no word from Carl.
Becky’s seatmate sent her another sidelong glance. Perhaps he noticed some color drain from her complexion or her knuckles whiten as she gripped the armrest.
“Nervous to fly?” he asked.
Becky peeled her eyes from her phone, tried to relax and let it all go, but her heartbeat accelerated as the terminal vanished from view.
“No, I’m fine. Thank you,” she managed. Her soft voice lacked conviction.
“My wife hates to fly, too,” said the man. His capacity to ignore the “don’t talk to me” vibes Becky gave off annoyed her, but it was not surprising. Men often had blinders on in that regard—even the non-creepers. “A vodka tonic usually does the trick,” he continued. “Anyway, I’m sure you’ve heard that flying is far safer than driving.”
“I’m fine, really. Thank you for your concern.”
Becky took a sharper tone and, judging by her seatmate’s wounded expression, doubted there’d be any more idle chitchat. She returned her attention to her phone, feeling terrible for the way she’d dismissed the man. Thanks to her mother, Becky was remarkably in tune with other people’s feelings.
It made sense she’d be good at it—there had been no better way to get her mom’s attention than to show an aptitude for figuring out what people wanted to hear based on their appearance or mannerisms. To see her daughter plying the family trade had impressed Cora more than when Becky made the cheer squad in middle school or got into the National Honor Society her junior year in high school. At the feet of the grand master herself, Becky had learned what to say or do to ingratiate herself with most anyone. With these insights, she could make people happy, put them on edge, or keep the peace, whichever suited her needs. It was shameful in a way, but it was also what had made her such a successful real estate broker. It was all about knowing which levers to pull.
“I’m sorry,” Becky said to the man. “I’m traveling for the first time in a long time, and it’s hard for me to leave my daughter. She’s sick, and, well, I’m waiting to hear from my husband to let me know everything is all right.”
“I’m sorry to hear that,” the man said sincerely. “What’s the matter, if you don’t mind my asking?”
“I wish I knew,” Becky said. “Nobody seems to know.”
Becky was a notoriously private person, except when it came to Meghan’s illness. For that, she blared the horns. She talked to anyone, stranger or friend, about the puzzling array of symptoms plaguing her daughter. She sought advice, doctors’ names, homeopathic remedies, experimental treatments, diagnoses from the expert and uninformed alike. She had filing cabinets in her office filled with papers, printouts from the web, doctors’ reports, lab tests—enough so that a friend once jokingly asked if she was opening up a health clinic.
While Becky avoided the specifics of Meghan’s confounding symptoms, she gave enough details to help her seatmate visualize a tense and uncertain situation back home. Muscle weakness. Fatigue. Blinding headaches. Achy joints. Weight loss. Decline in physical coordination. Trouble concentrating. Her daughter’s symptoms could change or worsen at any time, making a six-hour cross-country flight feel like an eternity.
“I’m sorry for what you’re going through. I’ll pray for you,” said the man after Becky had dispensed with the background.
It was a kind gesture, not at all unwelcome, and something Becky heard quite often these days. When there were no clear answers or well-defined next steps, prayers seemed to be the only thing people could offer.
Carl finally returned Becky’s many texts just as the captain came on the intercom to inform the passengers and crew that they were number six for takeoff. The buzz of the phone surged through her arm like an electric current. Carl’s reply was short and simple, four words that made Becky’s blood turn cold:
We’re at the hospital.
Copyright © 2019 by D. J. Palmer