||[Mar. 29th, 2007|10:39 pm]
Crisis Chapters 1-3|
“Don’t get too comfortable there, Gus, we gotta leave pretty soon to go pick Justin up at the airport.” Brian glanced down at his son who was sitting in front of the television, staring too intently at the day-glo spidey-sponge-puff-whateverthefuck characters that were prancing across the screen. “Gus,” he repeated, knowing that his son’s intent focus would only create problems when he was forced to tear the kid away from the screen in less than 20 minutes. He had learned it was best to pull Gus away during commercial breaks.
Gus finally glanced back at the man reading the paper on the couch behind him. “Huh?”
“Don’t get too comfortable there, kiddo.”
“Huh.” Gus turned back to the television.
Brian shook his head and turned back to the paper. They had about twenty minutes before they had to go, and what was this? A half hour cartoon? Brian decided to let Gus watch the whole thing. What was five minutes off of his schedule?
He grimaced, fighting the desire to stick to his original plans, to adhere to his normal instinct for being on time in all circumstances, or to leave the little shit to his own devices on arrival at the airport. He wondered whether Justin would be in as pissy a mood as he’d been in when he’d left Brian’s office two days ago, or whether, even worse, he’d have that cocksure attitude that had started the whole argument in the first place.
It certainly hadn’t been Brian’s fault, that argument. Yeah, he’d been in a bad mood, ever since John or Bob or Dick or whatever the fuck his name was in the art department who had missed a deadline and forced Brian to push back a meeting with the client at the last minute, knowing damn well this would force him to make extra nice, even concede more than he wanted in later negotiations. If the client didn’t find someone else in the interim. He hated being off schedule once he’d had an organizational structure set up in his head. Thus, his native unwillingness to risk being late in picking Justin up from his trip back from L.A.
The whole trip had been last-minute, something about the designs on the set of Rage, the movie. Or was it a costume thread out of place? Brian had been looking forward to just going out with Justin and relaxing that night, or not relaxing as the case may be, at Babylon and wherever they wanted to go after. Instead, Justin had dropped by mid-afternoon to announce he was desperately needed across the country.
“Can’t they just email you?”
“Nope,” Justin replied, that tone of flippant self-confidence setting Brian’s teeth on edge. “They need the go ahead for the set. Besides, Brett said he didn’t think it was quite right, and wanted me to come out and get a feel for it.”
“A feel for it, huh?” Brian picked up the latest design Cynthia had handed him from the Art Department, wrong again. Fuck! “So I suppose you need me to fix up travel arrangements?”
“Already got them,” Justin answered. “I was just wondering if you had time to drop me at the airport?”
“Oh, yeah,” Brian snapped. “Like I have time to drop everything, because you get called away. Take a fucking cab!”
Silence. Brian looked up, expecting to see anger, or incredulity spread across that beautiful face. Instead, Justin was smirking at him.
“I’m sorry we can’t go out tonight. I was looking forward to that too, you know. It’s just, well, business.”
He really hated it when Justin did that, thought he knew him well enough to not let Brian chase him off. When Brian was in these moods, he hated having Justin around. It wasn’t that Justin tried to appease him, something that only made Brian’s mood more brutal; those days were long gone. Now, Justin just smiled and shunted Brian’s sarcasm aside, more often than not leading him out of his angry mood through misdirection.
But Brian liked being angry. It was effective. For instance, when Dick/Bob/whoever was summoned to readdress this latest design imperfection, Brian wanted him cowed, wanted him ready to put in the extra time and effort that fear inspired, so he wouldn’t waste any more of Brian’s precious time.
“Like I can’t go without you. And I know all about taking care of business…” Brian gestured to the fuck up on the desk in front of him, “…like I have time to drop everything because you what, need me?”
But Justin was never cowed anymore. Instead, he answered Brian’s glare with a shrug. “Fine, I’ll grab a cab. Just thought you might want to a good-bye blow job on the way over, fine, your loss.” He picked up his bag. “And Brian. I don’t need you. And I sure as hell don’t need your shit mood.” Letting his own annoyance show, Justin had stomped out on his way to Los Angeles.
Brian felt better and worse after that. Worse, because he hated actually feeling, okay, kind of bad that he had ruined Justin’s initial good mood. And that he had missed out on a blow job. But you’d think the kid would know better than to harass him when he was working and obviously pissed off. Unless Justin had learned to ignore his moods altogether. That would really suck. For the longest time he had wanted nothing less than for Justin to get the clue that he was fine all on his lonesome. But now… he wasn’t so sure what that deep uneasiness was, that tightening in his stomach that would grip him when he had started actually hearing the words from his lover’s mouth, I don’t need you. Wasn’t that what he wanted to hear, all along? I want you, great. I need you? No. So why did the negative statement bother him so much?
“Fuck,” Brian muttered. This was bullshit. That conversation was over two days ago. In the past. He’d find out whether Justin was pissed at him when he met him at the airport, with Gus. He had a good idea Justin wasn’t too pleased, since he had emailed Brian his itinerary without any note, and nary a phone call. Just the facts, ma’am. No usual, I miss you. No phone sex. Shit. Justin must be pissed, he must be. Surely he wasn’t just ignoring him.
In any case, Brian figured that showing up at the gate to greet Liberty Air 512 with Gus in tow and a big, sarcastic “Welcome home honey!” would clear up any lingering bad blood. Justin would roll his eyes, and then break out in that smile of his, and understand that underneath his lover’s sarcastic, over-the-top gesture, would be a grain of truth. Plus, having Gus along didn’t hurt. Justin would never give Brian shit in front of the kid. Lucky for Brian, Melanie had gone into labor the night before and Lindsay had dropped Gus off to stay with him. The perfect foil to Justin’s pissy attitude. Justin loved the kid, and Brian’s showing up at the gate would be as good as an apology, without him once having to say anything. The perfect plan. As long as they were on time at the airport.
He conceded to himself that that meant he and Gus would have to motor before the cartoon was over. Just because Justin’s plane had a stop-over at O’Hare, there was no guarantee that it wouldn’t be in the 10% statistic that did not immediately equate a stop-over with a late arrival at the destination airport. With the way things had been left, it was better not to take the risk, even if the odds were in his favor.
He looked up at the cartoon, dreading the drama that would ensue when he pulled the kid away mid-stream. But even as he glanced at the screen, the cartoon was interrupted by NBC Breaking News, with that damn music that accompanied every major national announcement. Brian stood up, relieved that he wouldn’t be the bad guy for once. “Wonder who we’re bombing now?” he thought, turning to pick up Gus. He lifted the child in his arms and turned to find the remote to switch off the tv.
Before he could, the anchor came on and began, “Breaking news this hour, there has been a plane crash in Illinois, a flight apparently en route to Chicago’s O’Hare airport. Details are sketchy. We take you to our reporter in Chicago at O’Hare.”
Brian turned slowly back to the television set. On screen, a stern woman with a perfect blond bob appeared in front of a terminal with Liberty Air’s logo prominently displayed behind her. “Thanks, David. I’m standing here at Liberty Air terminal, where we have been informed that one of Liberty’s planes has crashed on approach to Chicago, going down approximately 20 miles outside the city. We have no solid details at this hour, but we are being told that air traffic controllers were in touch with the airplane for some amount of time before they lost contact.”
“Diane, is there any indication that this is an act of terrorism?”
“Where the fuck was it coming from?” Brian’s voice came from behind clenched teeth.
“Daddy!” Gus reprimanded, placing his hand on Brian’s mouth. Brian absently picked the little hand off his face, held it tightly in his own.
“We don’t know for sure, little information is being released.”
“Diane, I have to interrupt you, we’re getting video from our local news affiliate at the site.” On screen, a field came into view, smoke pouring up into the sky at a distance. Emergency lights were everywhere, including immediately in front of the camera taking the shot. The press was being kept far at bay from the scene of the crash itself; all that could be seen was black smoke billowing from behind a slight rise. Off screen, a voice called to the police man at the barricade, “Were there any survivors?” The grim woman standing next to the police officer in the forefront of the screen replied, “No details. You’ll be informed when we have more information. Please stay behind the lines, we need to maintain access.”
The stern blonde came back on screen. “We’re being told that Liberty is setting up an 800 number for relatives once the tragic flight is confirmed. Until then, anyone concerned is encouraged to call the main number to check on specific flights.”
Tragic flight, what the fuck did that mean? Brian felt his arms begin to shake, and he turned to set Gus down on the couch. He picked up his cell phone, and hit the redial button for Liberty Air, a number he had called not two hours ago, to make sure Justin’s flight was on time.
“Welcome to Liberty Air.” Brian punched in the numbers to check for flight time and arrival information. Once he entered the necessary information, he waited for what seemed an eternity. Thank God they didn’t have canned hold music; instead, a voice patiently explained, over and over, that his call would be answered as soon as possible. Two minutes went by. It seemed much longer. Brian glanced at the clock. He’d have to leave soon if he wanted to meet Justin’s flight. Maybe it was delayed, and they were changing the information.
“This is Lilian with Liberty Air.”
A real human being. Brian, startled, recovered enough to say, “Yeah, um, I was calling to check on Liberty 512 out of LAX, connecting through O’Hare. It was due in Pittsburgh at 12:18."
“Oh… hold on, please.” Again, cut off. But this time there was ringing, and the call was immediately picked up. Brian told himself that this didn’t necessarily mean anything, even as he felt his heart begin to race, the sudden cold clamminess of his hands.
“Yes, sir? This is Jack, I’m a representative of the airline. You have a relative on flight 512?”
“Yes, Justin Taylor? Is…” He couldn’t continue, but he didn’t have to.
“I am very sorry, sir, but our reports indicate that flight 512 is the plane that went down just outside O’Hare. We have reports of survivors, but no details. According to my information, Mr. Taylor boarded the flight in LA.”
Brian closed his eyes.
The man continued, “Are you in the Pittsburgh area?”
“We’re arranging immediate transportation of all relatives to Chicago. Again, there are reports of survivors, but we just don’t know at the moment. The local hospitals will be handling the immediate information regarding survivors, if there are any.”
“What the fuck happened?” Brian demanded.
“We don’t know yet. Can you get to Pittsburgh International? We can send a cab to pick you up, wherever you are.”
“No… I can get to the airport.”
“Okay. Go to the first class check-in; arrangements are being handled from there. There’s generally no line; if there is, speak with an attendant who will be there. They’re aware of the situation. And sir… again, I’m very sorry.”
“So am I,” Brian muttered as he hit the “end” button on his phone. He looked down at Gus, who was staring up at him from the couch. He’d have to drop him off somewhere. But where? The hospital, with Lindsay. But Michael and Debbie were there, too, and he didn’t want to dump this on them in the middle of an already emotionally charged situation. And besides, he didn’t know anything, and just couldn’t handle any questions right now.
He brought the phone up, and dialed another number.
Ted had not offered any advice on the interminable drive to the airport, thank God. He hadn’t said he was sorry, and that Brian could appreciate, because “sorry” was more than bullshit in this case, sorry implied that Justin was… lost, and they just didn’t know anything yet. Gus was strapped in the back of Lindsay’s car, for delivery to his moms at the hospital after Brian was dropped off at the airport.
“Have you talked to Jennifer?” Ted asked as they pulled up at the Liberty Air terminal and stopped.
“Shit, no.” Brian shook his head as he got out of the car. “I’ll do that, good thinking.”
Ted leaned over. “I’ll take care of everything on this end. If you can, let us know.”
But Brian had already walked away, his long stride moving quickly through the doors and toward the Liberty Air desk. He approached the First Class counter, bypassing the longer waits for check-in. He vaguely noted a family laughing together as they joined the end of the regular line. How odd, they behaved so normally. He stared at them, as they poked through their bags, talked to each other as if the whole world weren’t shattering. He'd seen families just like this one in public a million times, but this one... surreal. He shuddered without realizing and turned back to his own line.
There were two people waiting at the first class counter, while the customer at the counter handed her luggage to the attendant, who in turn placed the bags onto the conveyer behind her. She turned back to smile at the customer, handing over a boarding pass. Brian slowed, wondering if he should just wait. These decisions were usually fairly easy; he usually would just barge to the front of the line, owning the space. These were, after all, extraordinary circumstance, and he’d even been given the go-ahead, not that he ever needed it. So what the fuck?
“Sir?” Before he could overcome this weird reticence, an older man in the airline’s uniform approached him.
“Are you here as a relative?”
Tactful, Brian thought, biting his lip to suppress a sudden urge to laugh hysterically at the man’s concerned demeanor. He could only nod, and clenched his hands against the urge to strike that look of sympathy off the man’s face, to rip at the skin, to see if it was just a mask the corporation gave out for just this purpose. Get a grip, Brian, he told himself. The guy’s just doing his job.
“Maria will help you.” The attendant gestured to a young woman with that same serious look, who stood at the far end of the counter, waiting. There was a long, empty stretch of counter space between her check-in and the others. Discreet, Brian thought as he walked down to speak with her.
“We have a flight to Chicago that’s boarding now,” Maria said, punching information into the computer. “We just need to ask a few questions.”
“I don’t have any luggage,” Brian replied, biting his lip.
Maria glanced up, surprised. “Oh, no, of course not.” Her shocked face jolted down Brian’s spine. Serious, fuck, this is all so fucking serious, so fucking surreal…
“We need to see a license,” she said, and, as Brian took his wallet out of the inner pocket of his coat, she continued, “And, we need to know the name of your relative, and your relationship?”
Relative, fuck. He should have called Jennifer first. “Justin Taylor,” he answered, handing his license over. “He’s my…” the hesitation had Maria glancing up, meeting his eyes for the first time. “husband,” Brian finished, softly. He waited, ready to really lose it if she said a fucking word, anything close to, sorry, we’re only accommodating relatives. Liberty was about to fucking accommodate him. But still, that odd reluctance, like skin stretched too tight over a feverish body. If he started yelling at Maria, he was afraid he would devolve into screaming, and wouldn't be able to stop. Not good.
Thank God, Maria only nodded, typed the information into her computer, and handed him back his license along with a boarding pass. “Gate 21. It’s boarding now, twenty minutes to take off.”
As he moved toward the gate, he remembered Ted’s advice, and dialed Jennifer’s number.
“Jennifer, it’s Brian.”
“Hello, Brian, what…”
“No, listen, look.” Fuck, how did you break this to someone? “Look, I’m at the airport, Justin’s flight just went down outside Chicago, it crashed, it’s all over the news, I’m taking off in 20 minutes. Can you get down here and onto a flight? Just go to the first class desk, they’ll put you on a plane.”
“Oh my God.” There was a catch in her voice, then silence
“Yeah, I’m here…”
“Did you hear me?”
“Is he… Were there any… Oh, my God.” Brian heard the noise of a tv being turned on in the background, heard Molly’s voice in the distance, questioning, “Mom, what’s wrong?”
“Jesus, Jennifer, turn off the fucking tv and get your ass down here! They aren’t giving out details until we get there, and they aren’t going to release any information until relatives have been notified. Can you get out to Chicago?” He was rough on her, he knew, and out of the corner of his eye he saw people in the line casting furtive glances at him. “I gotta go, I’m going through security.”
“Okay… I’ll meet you in Chicago.”
Brian hung up the phone, and threw it, along with his watch and wallet, into the basket to be x-rayed. Then he was through, and hurrying off to his flight.
Brian normally got a rush out of takeoffs, all that power thrusting the huge piece of machinery forward, the press of the body against the back into the seat, the gathering speed and then the tilt upward, the vibration of contact with the ground gone as the metal frame slipped suddenly into air alone, the whine of the engines and the thrust, all that power absorbed in the contact of body against the seat. Normally, he got a rush. Nothing was normal today. The landing usually did not affect him at all, only a slight regret at the idea that he was back on earth. Today, though, knowing that takeoff and landing were the most dangerous minutes in the air, a thought that normally turned him on, he knew… normally. There that was again. He felt sick with the idea of his normal reaction. The games he played in his head with death were only for himself. Why did they seem to keep playing out in Justin’s world?
“Mr. Kinney.” He turned his head to look up at the flight attendant, who was leaning into the empty seat that separated his seat at the window from the aisle. “If I can do anything for you, anything at all, just let me know.”
He nodded, and began to turn away. Then he looked back. “Do they know anything yet?”
“I’m sorry, we really haven’t been told anything.”
“I don’t suppose you can get CNN here.” He tapped the video monitor in front of him, showing the airplane’s position in the sky over a cut-out section of the Northeast US.
“Unfortunately, just movies and canned video. The captain will be in touch with the ground. If he hears anything, he’ll tell me and I’ll let you know.” She paused. “Last I heard, they were saying there were survivors. I can’t know for sure, but…”
He managed a wan smile. “Yeah. Uh… can I get a glass of scotch? One shot, no ice.”
“Certainly, I’ll bring it right over.” She walked away.
He stared out the window at the ground below. An hour and a half in the air, too short to climb far up. The ground slipped past, all the little houses visible, the trees, the earth below. People going about their normal lives. He always felt superior to them, but right now he envied them with an intensity that made it hard to breath.
He leaned his head back against the seat. Up to this point, he had been in full active mode, and now, with the sudden enforced stillness of his body, he could feel the shaking of his bones under the surface of his skin, the blood pounding too fast in his veins. That sensation had been kept at bay by figuring out what to do with Gus, where to go, rushing to catch the next plane, calling Ted, calling Jennifer, rushing through takeoff… suddenly he had nothing to do but wait. Wait and think.
The flight attendant, Diane according to her name tag, came back with his drink. Thank God. Barely a shot, filling the barest amount of the glass. Probably for the best. Brian took it from her, swallowed it in one gulp, tossed the empty glass into the seat next to him and then turned back to the window.
Jesus, that argument, how stupid was that. Was that an argument? What a stupid way to leave things, just to end… No, he didn’t know, damn it, didn’t know anything yet. But no word from Justin in two days, when they always called each other. Or, Justin always called Brian. Brian rarely made the first move; both men knew that. Brian leaned his forehead onto the window, his brow touching the cool surface. I’m such an asshole, he thought. The old Justin would have called right away, he would not have been okay with letting Brian be an asshole, not okay with letting this argument or whatever this stupid thing was, not okay with letting it just be there, between them. The Justin prior to this latest phase in their relationship, at least, the one who hammered at him, that Justin would have tried to shake this stupid wall down, would have let nothing stand between them, that Justin would have called, yelled, and then soothed Brian’s responsive and unrelenting temper with hot words of a different sort, so that Brian would not have stayed mad at him, not after an orgasm coaxed by just words over a phone line that would still be a better experience than any anonymous opening in the back room at Babylon.
The new Justin just let Brian ride, and didn’t do a damn thing. The new Justin kept whatever he was thinking to himself, and let Brian rage away. Except for that chicken soup episode, as Brian had begun to call it in his head. Brian hadn't understood, up to this very moment, why he was so fixated on remembering Justin's yelling at him, fixated but not in a bad way. Now he realized: it had been signs of life in Justin's resistance to Brian's bullshit. And it had only taken a really, really prick move on Brian's part, throwing him out like that. So Justin took care of him, sure, he was there, enacting the very arrangement Brian had tried to hammer into his head all those years – words mean nothing, action is all. But then, what did Justin’s new actions of shrugging off Brian’s bullshit, yeah, okay, it was bullshit, such petty bullshit in the face of this sudden overwhelming shift in reality, a reality so fucked up that every little bit of it outlined more clearly the edges of this new and horrifying thing he was flying into, this brave new world, in the face of the jagged edges of this new Reality all that past bickering was just so much bullshit, dim and hazy bullshit. Justin used to fight to get Brian to understand that, that that bullshit he was so good at manufacturing wasn’t worth the time it wasted. The old Justin had been fighting to get Brian to get it. The one who knew, maybe even more after he’d been hurt by Hobbes, that all Brian’s crap was just that. Life is too short to waste the time. Wake up, Brian, he could imagine the words in Justin’s voice, the old Justin who knew with another sort of blow, that physical blow to the head instead of the constant battering blows to the heart, that it all could be taken away, and who wanted to be left with a life of regret, with what could have been? Brian had wanted to toughen him up, to get him to put up defenses, to protect himself. Just like me, he thought.
And then there was the fiddler, who showed Justin what Brian already knew all too well about words. Again, not Justin’s words, but someone else’s. You’re still so young, Brian had told him, over and over. Experience will screw you. Let me show you exactly how.
And if Hobbes had bashed his head, Brian and the fiddler had bashed his heart. So what was the solution? To walk around with a helmet because some asshole with issues can do damage? Was that Brian’s wisdom?
Oh, what, you’re so smart? The perfect return, Justin’s belief that it wasn’t about experience, for him, it was something else. Experience isn’t the only lesson out there, and maybe experience isn’t about shutting down, protecting yourself. Justin would have said, fuck that. The old Justin. There’s more to life, there’s more to me, more to you. More to us, fuck the world, fuck what it does. I’m different. You can be too. We can be together.
Brian thought, Maybe that’s what this has been since we got back together, Justin processing his experience with that guy. I always just dump things into the past, forget them, move on. At least, I say I do, don’t I? That mantra, “I thought you were past all that,” when I came upon him drawing those slaughter pictures right before the Pink Posse bullshit, but it wasn’t bullshit, not to him. Putting experience behind you doesn’t mean that it’s forgotten. It gets translated into action. Pain has a way of not staying in the past, it translates into the future. My own experience translated, translated into words that said love is bullshit. No one will take care of you. And those words translated my own pain. Put a helmet around my heart, steel walls, sealing everyone out. So maybe some words did mean something.
And so here was the new Justin, a new translation. There when Brian needed him, sick with radiation poisoning, refusing to walk away. But not exactly walking toward him either. Keeping Brian at arm’s length. Watching, wary, waiting for the next blow.
And what was Brian’s response? You don’t like the way I strike out, get off the playing field. Don’t like that I’m busy, annoyed, and taking it out on you? Get your own fucking cab.
Fuck. It was never a game to Justin. So why did he suddenly give up his position, when did he start playing Brian’s game? Was that what had been happening? Or was he waiting for Brian to finally get a clue, to figure that out, to join him in a world where words matched actions, matched intent? Brian had always thought of that as la-la land. And, in his experience, it had been.
And Justin… he figured Justin would find that out too. Just like Brian had. And so what, Brian was going to show him just how cruel the world was by being the face of the cruel world? To turn him away from his idealism, his belief in love, the belief in things important enough to fight for?
“You want him to deny who he is, how he feels…” His own words, and he’d meant them, had been really angry and disgusted when he’d spat them at Craig Taylor, coming back to haunt him as he sat here, uncertain in a way he’d never been in his life, doubting everything he ever thought he knew. He accused other people of living bullshit lives. But what had he been doing?
Brian bit down on his bottom lip, tasting blood, feeling the pain. It wasn’t distracting him. He bit harder, nope. The pain was there; it didn’t hurt, it couldn’t hurt him, he wouldn’t acknowledge it. He could master it, he could master all pain, see, look at this, the tender flesh just inside and under his lower lip, shredding, and he didn’t care, didn’t care, didn’t *feel* it.
But the other pain, the clog at the back of his throat that was something deep down fighting to rip out past the lip he was biting down on, that he felt. The shaking in his hands, that he felt.
He opened his teeth, let go of the damage he was causing to his mouth. This wasn’t working, he had to admit it to himself, the old tricks didn’t work in this situation, no matter how much better it felt to just inflict physical pain on himself and fight feeling it, and through that reminder, fight feeling anything at all. As much as he would love to drown himself in the first class whiskey that tasted like shit and felt like balm as it hit his stomach and was picked up by his blood to spread through each cell in his body, drown out the pain, calm down this awful trembling that shimmied just under his hopefully still surface, that wasn’t the answer either. He couldn’t do this anymore. Justin needed him, fuck. Needed him to keep together. And if he was okay… well, he needed him still, more than he knew, even though he didn’t know why, but Brian did, what was that about shock, opening eyes? Wasn’t there a song about that? Oh, crap, please no song lyrics bouncing around in my head.
Instead, his partner’s words on the big night of reunion, “I know what to expect…” Yeah, he knew to expect a whole bunch of nothing, action that might mean anything at all, but just don’t think about it, because you don’t know me, I’ll give you nothing, no explanations, of intent or of feelings or of expectations, not expressions of anything. Let that be enough. Always being kept at arm’s length from the natural urge to create something bigger. No expectations. I know what you expect of me… to just take the bullshit reminders of how little he was needed by the man he still loved, but differently now. The artist, who lived for expression, facing the blank canvas. And is okay with that? No, no no no no. Something is not right here. This isn’t right. Why would Justin think this was all right? Why was he allowing, encouraging Justin to believe this was all right, just giving into himself, his own past, his own bullshit so easily? And it had taken this to open Brian's eyes to it? When it was too late?
“Fuck,” Brian whispered, then clamped his lips together. No, he didn’t know yet, he didn’t know anything yet.
He knew why he had allowed this, though, it felt safe, it felt comfortable, it felt familiar. Those familiar feelings, all based on experience, all lies. The only feeling that he knew was true right now was the pain deep inside, in every cell, the pain at knowing that he might already have lost the most important thing in his life, maybe the only thing that would lead him away from the bullshit he’d indulged himself in up to now. That, and the rightness of remembering the feeling of his own body against his lover’s. That he knew, without doubt. Absolute right.
But none of where he was at this moment was right, none of it, he should be greeting Justin at the gate with Gus, apologizing in his own way without words, without conceding anything to his other, continually denying him points in a game that suddenly felt completely meaningless in this brave new world he’d just been thrust into. His need to be on top, always in control, suddenly made ridiculous, worse than ridiculous, meaningless. He wasn’t in control, he had never been in control. And now… he might have to live, knowing Justin thought he didn’t really care. Not enough. Never enough.
All the familiar words he normally told himself were wrong, totally out of place here in this airplane, where he never expected to be, yesterday’s, hell, this morning’s words echoing back at him with a false ring that mocked everything, his entire life, everything he did and told himself was for the best. It wasn’t for the best, not for him, not for Justin. He wasn’t in control, he was in a fucking airplane on his way to a national disaster. How the fuck had this happened? He sure as hell had no idea. He didn’t know shit, his whole life, based on lies, the lies he learned from two self-centered bullshitters, lies he wasn’t strong enough to fight.
And was he only able to think all of this now, in the quiet of first class, because he knew damn well the odds were he’d never have to deal with it at all? Never have to solve this, never have to risk any bit of himself by trying to reach out with words, with more than just his bullshit experience and ego maniacal selfishness, instead of saying something to Justin, to reveal this? Because he knew…
No. Nope, he didn’t know anything.
He glanced at his watch. Twenty-five minutes gone. Was that what this would be? Ninety minutes of hell, of the implications of how badly he was fucking up, of how he needed to pay attention to someone else’s sensibilities instead of his own, to just fucking listen and actually take seriously ideas outside of his own experience, for no good reason at all, to just take a leap of faith and not impose his own will on everything? Could he do that?
But he considered the idea, for the first time in his life. Just make him okay, he chanted to himself, in his head, over and over, Just let him be okay and I won’t try to control him, or even myself, I won’t play it so safe so much. Life isn’t safe, isn’t that the obvious point here? Please, God, don’t take him away from me, don’t be that cruel, don’t leave me unfinished.
He looked at his watch. Thirty minutes since takeoff. It felt like forever, and an hour to go.
“Um, I’m sorry, are you flying into O’Hare for Flight 512?”
Brian turned his head to look across the aisle at the woman sitting in the seat just slightly back from his. First class staggered the seating, for maximum privacy, if so desired. He desired, and turned away.
“I’m sorry,” the woman continued, relentless, “but…” her voice was raspy, and she finished, “…my husband and daughter are… were, on that flight.”
He turned back to her, having no idea what to say as his gaze took in her shaking hands, the eyes bright with repressed tears, the pinched skin about her mouth.
The flight attendant came down the aisle, addressed them both. “I’m sorry, we still don’t know anything. But if there’s anything else I can do…”
“Reverse time and make my family miss their flight?”
The flight attendant visibly blanched, and Brian felt a vicious satisfaction. Normally, he would have been the one to destroy the airline workers’ ongoing attempts to accommodate what they “knew” he was feeling. And here was this frumpy, washed-out looking woman telling this perfectly clueless idiot, that she didn’t know shit, she couldn’t do anything. Just what Brian was thinking.
“Just leave me alone, please.” The attendant walked away, probably relieved to return to her normal duties. Serve drinks, hand out hot towels. Normal routine, normal, normal, normal. What the fuck was normal anyway? His normal was completely blown out of the water, oh, oops, out of the sky. He saw the attendant, Diane according to her name tag, leaning in to talk to a passenger on the other side of the cabin. The passenger smiled; Diane’s smile was natural in response. How was such a conversation possible? How was it possible that people went about their daily business? Brian glanced at his watch. 12:30. They were due in O’Hare at 1:30… okay, 2:30 with the time shift. He realized, he should be at the gate. With Gus. Waiting for Justin to come down the corridor 10 minutes ago. Cursing out the announcement that told waiting relative, including him and this woman sitting behind him that he should not be even glancing twice at, that the plane was late. Of course. Gus telling him to not say “Shit!” to no one in particular after hearing the overhead PA. Going to the counter, asking how long it was going to be. Blaming Justin in his head for the delay, for wasting his time, for making him care enough to actually be there in the first place. Instead, he was on a plane himself, looking back toward this woman who looked a lot older than her, what, early 40’s? Impossible to tell with the stress stretching underneath her skin like that, her shoulders shaking slightly, a small shiver rippling down her body, in waves.
Well, she wasn't the only one, he thought, forcefully relaxing his clenched hands. He answered, “Yeah, 512.”
Mrs. Clark glanced at his hand, checking for the ring. “Family? Girlfriend?”
“Oh.” She sighed. “I’m sorry.”
“I think you can save sorry for yourself.”
“No… you must hate that.”
He raised his eyebrows. It felt weird, that reaction, but he was glad it was possible, that his habits were carrying him through. He sure as hell wasn’t sure he could manage otherwise.
“I mean, everyone must just assume when they ask you. That it’s a girl. Or a family at home.”
“He is family. Family plus.” Was that true, really? Were they really that close anymore?
She laughed, mirthlessly. “I like that, good way to define marriage. Oh! I’m sorry.” She blushed, an improvement to the grey cast of the skin around her eyes and mouth, and he saw that she was actually much younger than he had first thought. Maybe mid 30’s. “Are you married then?”
“I think the wife wouldn’t understand my thing with Justin.”
“Yeah I know.” Brian sighed, shifted back in the chair to face her more squarely. “I’m thinkng too much. You're a good target for distraction. Sorry.”
“I don’t mind. As you say, distraction. I’m trying not to think about it, babbling at you. I don’t know any gay couples. My husband, Jack, he’s kind of…”
“He’s an uberguy.”
“As opposed to an ubergay.”
She actually laughed, and he realized she was a lot younger than he’d thought initially. “Oh, yeah, total opposite from the ubergay. Out of shape, getting old, bored with his job, bored with me. Bored but entrenched. Judgmental.” She raised a hand to her face. “Why am I telling this to a complete stranger?”
“Same reason I’m giving you a hard time. It helps not to think about other things.”
“Yeah.” She was quiet for a second. Then, “I’m Mary.”
Mary wasn’t in such great shape herself, Brian noticed. “I’m really worried about my daughter,” she said, looking away from him.
“Yeah, Grace. She was both traveling with Jack. On the way back from his parents in California.”
“I have a son. He’s with his mother though. Safe.” He didn’t add, thank God, he thought that would be cruel.
“Really? So what, you were married and met… Justin, right? And realized you were totally in love, and the feelings you had all along were real, you weren't, well, marriage material?”
Brian snorted. “Sorry, Mary, that’s someone else’s Lifetime Original Movie.”
“Don’t be,” sorry’s bullshit, he almost added, but stopped himself. “A friend wanted my sperm. I’ve never been the marrying type.”
“Bet Justin doesn’t believe that.”
Brian shook his head. Justin didn’t used to believe that. He had no idea what Justin believed now.
“Probably smart of you, though,” Mary continued. She leaned forward in her seat. “Can I tell you something?” Brian sighed, gesturing her to move into the seat next to his. Justin would never believe I invited someone to sit next to me on a plane, he thought. Sometimes I don’t like him next to me. Damn, I really am an asshole.
Mary scooted forward, gratefully, settling in. “I wish sometimes I’d never met Jack. I mean, I don’t regret having Grace… But my first thought in hearing the news was, maybe he’s dead, and maybe she’s okay. That’s pretty awful, isn’t it?” Her voice was choked.
“I think something like this brings out feelings we’d rather not think about,” Brian responded. “You need a drink? I need another drink.” He gestured over to Diane, who moved over immediately. “Can I have another shot? That’s it, cut me off. And, Mary…”
“Wine, white wine, whatever, I don’t care.” Diane hurried off, and Mary turned back to him. “It’s not that I regret Grace, it’s that I used to be a dancer, you know? In college. I was pretty good. Oh, yeah, I know you’d never know looking at me. But I was really good, in fact, the San Francisco ballet was a real possibility, it was almost a for sure that I’d get in. And then I met Jack.”
“And got pregnant.”
“No, that's somebody else's Lifetime Original. It wasn’t anything that excusable. I fell in love. At least, that’s what I told myself. Now, though, I think it wasn’t that, I think I was afraid. And let myself use Jack as an out. And I think that’s why I resent him so much now, not because of who he is, there’s still a lot of good in him. It’s just… he never helped me help myself. He wanted me to be the woman who would be there for him, what was convenient for him to believe of me, for me to fit into his way of looking at the world. And I didn’t have enough balls to tell him to go to hell. To be a dancer, to be great as a dancer which was how I’d always seen myself. I gave in to easily to who he wanted me to be, in his image of the world. It’s pretty normal, I guess. One partner’s always stronger. We never fought in the beginning. Maybe if I’d fought him more right off. We only started fighting a couple of years ago, when I started blaming him. And you know, I know I can only blame myself, that’s what they tell us, right? We can only make our own choices, stand alone, no one can help us. But that’s bullshit, because he was actually really weak, too weak to support me, too weak to see that helping me, encouraging me to be for myself and not for him, which would have made us strong, and been better for both of us. But he had the power over the relationship, and isn’t that what they say, power corrupts? He thought he knew what was best for himself, for me, for us. And he didn’t know diddly. He thought he did. And I let him. You know?”
“Oh, I know,” Brian answered. Mary sure could talk, but for once someone else babbling at him was a relief. So when she stopped tracing her anger and resentment and now guilt because Jack and her child might be gone, and said, “I’m sorry, I’m talking only about me,” he gestured her to continue, telling her it was okay, he didn’t mind. He closed his eyes, let her words wash over him. Tried to focus on her voice, ignored the second glass of whiskey and the mental image of what Justin must have gone through not three hours ago.
And then they were landing in Chicago, and Diane was getting them off the plane, where they were greeted by a tall, older man with a grim face in a navy Armani suit and tie, who introduced himself as Richard Warburton, and directed them to follow him to an isolated suite.
They followed Warburton into a large private room, and looked around the room at the hundred or so other people gathered there. Warburton turned around to face him and Mary. Several people approached Warburton, but hung back when they realize there were new arrivals.
“We don’t have a lot of information right now,” Warburton began.
Brian interrupted, “Are there survivors?”
“As best we can tell, about ninety or so people managed to exit the plane.”
“Out of how many?”
Warburton straightened his spine, and that canned, I’m-in-charge-here look was melting from his face. The mask slips, Brian noted with satisfaction. Good, this prick better realize real quick who’s about to be in charge. “One hundred and ninety-seven.”
Mary moaned, an animal sound. Brian didn’t even glance at her. “You must have heard something by now. Do you have a list of those who were conscious at the scene?”
“We have a list of fifty-four treated for lesser burns, smoke inhalation, who were able to give us their names. We also have a list of those who… couldn’t… with identification on them. Mr. Taylor and your family, Mrs. Clark, were not on either list of the known recovered. I’m sorry.”
The woman began crying, silently. Brian said to her, “We don’t know anything yet.”
“I’m sorry,” Warburton continued, “I really must attend to…”
“No, you mustn’t,” Brian interrupted. “Or, if you must, you will go get me someone who will be able to answer my questions, or at least get me to whatever hospitals your ‘victims’ were taken to. Now. Now, Warburton! Oh, fuck,” he ended, pulling his phone out of his pocket. It was off. What the fuck? Shit, shit, shit, what the fuck, when’d he do that? He hit the power button, waited for the voice mail beep, there it was. A number of incoming calls, one from Jennifer, probably telling him what flight she was on. Three from Michael. None from Justin.
He closed his eyes, then looked up, around the room. Warburton was talking with two women and a man. All were crying. He looked around the room. Most seemed incapable of standing, holding onto each other, leaning up against each other, staring at Warburton, waiting. The weight on his shoulder told him Mary had leaned into him. “Mary, Mary!” She looked up as he shrugged her off. “You can’t fall apart now.” She seemed unable to focus. “Oh for fuck’s sake.” He turned to a young man sitting a bit away, staring into space. “Hey! Yeah, you! How long have you been here?”
“Forever.” He practically whispered it.
“No, seriously, half hour? Hour?”
The kid glanced at his watch. “Yeah, waiting for news.”
Brian shook his head, disgusted, and beginning to let that clog in his throat open up. Safer here, on ground again, where he could fucking *do* something. “Hey! Warburton!” he strode over to the man, who spoke briefly to the people, promising he would "do what I can," before he turned back to Brian bearing down on him. “If you don’t get me transportation right fucking now to whatever hospitals the survivors are at so I can go take a look at the people who can’t give you their names, I am going to go outside to the media I’m sure are camped out there and tell them Liberty is not helping the families, we all know how that plays in America. If you don't get me fucking transportation, right now, I'll do it myself.”
Warburton motioned him aside. Brian stepped further away from the others. “Mr. Kinney, I appreciate how distraught you are…”
“No, you don’t.”
“…but the hospitals have asked that we hold the relatives here until they are not quite so overwhelmed. We have really good hospitals in Chicago, and their trauma centers are at full capacity, every doctor in Chicago is there, along with all the staff, they’ve all been called in. I know it seems incredible, but it’s only been four hours since the plane went down. The relatives whose family members are… dead, or dying, the ones so badly burned there’s no recovery, if we know who they are, we’ve sent those families along to the hospital. We’ve also sent the families to be with those relatives who survived. But they don’t want people crowding the hospitals right now. We’re getting people to take photos of the unidentified, and they will be forwarding the pictures to us as they come in, as soon as possible.” He paused, noticing how Brian’s shoulders slumped in defeat. “I can’t imagine how hard waiting is, Mr. Kinney.” He hesitated, and Brian prompted, “What?”
“I work closely with Dan Wheeler,” Warburton went on, naming the Vice President of Marketing, a man Brian knew fairly well. “We appreciate the work Kinnetic does for Liberty. When I saw your name on the list flying in from Pittsburgh, I spoke with Dan, not an hour ago. We are both terribly sorry to hear Justin was on that plane, Dan remembers meeting him. Believe me, if we were going to accommodate anyone, it would be you. But right now, this is bigger than us. The doctors are in charge right now, and there’s nothing we can do but stay out of their way and wait.”
Brian bit his lower lip, and took a deep breath. Fuck. Me. He opened his eyes. “I’m keeping you from your job. I appreciate your taking the time to speak with me.”
“I am more than happy to do it. Jennifer Taylor is due in on the next plane, which is on time in just under an hour. We should have pictures coming in, as soon as we can. We’re encouraging people to leave a description with Marianne, at the computer, so that any incoming photos may be… shown first to those who may match. You should do that. I’ll be back, and please ask my assistants for anything you need.” He gestured across the room and Brian noticed a woman standing behind a counter typing information as a relative gestured, apparently physically aiding her description of a lost loved one. There was a short line of people waiting to do this. There were also two men in company uniforms standing on either side in the reception area, one speaking to a young woman whose hand was clutching at his.
Brian turned back and took a seat next to Mary.
“I think I’m glad I’m with you. Someone who can take charge.”
“Let me tell you, Mary, today I am definitely not in charge. And I’m starting to get the message that it isn’t always a good idea. We have to go to that line up there, and give a description of our relatives.”
* * *
“Brian! Have you heard anything?” Jennifer rushed up to Brian as he stood, grabbed him in a huge hug and threatened never to let go.
He gently pushed her away. “No.” He glanced at Warburton, who had accompanied Jennifer into the waiting area. Someone had finally turned on the television news, and all they had learned was that it probably wasn’t terrorism, that the plane had been descending for landing when all hell broke. Survivors were reporting there had been an odd bang, the plane shook, and then they were tilting, righted briefly, and then fast, down. They had crashed near the interstate; apparently the pilots had managed to line up on a fairly even field, but at the last second the plane had tipped, and they had rolled. The pilot managed to tell the air traffic controller that they had lost ability to control the plane. Both pilots were officially dead. A passenger in one of the cars on the interstate had filmed the first part of the crash, the plane descending so fucking slowly, looking good except it was headed for a field, and then one wing hit first and it rolled and a huge flaming bubble engulfed the thing before rising in orange and black smoke.
He had briefly left the room so he wasn't forced to hear 100 people crying out in horror. It was bad enough, to know Justin had been in that, without having to hear his own reaction screaming back at him in others' voices. He stood outside the door, glanced down the hall. No one there but a lone security guard. He had pulled out a cigarette. The guard approached him; Brian had glared. But the man had only handed him an empty soda can. "For the ashes," he had said, before turning back to his post.
But he had had to go back in, because every so often a new picture would circulate into the waiting room, or a series of them would filter in, pass around. And then someone would know. He hated watching that, people inevitably broke down. He did not envy Warburton his job, having to break this to people. What could you say? After watching Warburton quietly pull aside a group of people the first time, and watching a grown man faint, he’d stopped watching. Watching those reactions in no way had prepared him for how he felt the first time Warburton pulled him aside to show him a picture they had recently been sent. Brian suspected that they had a stack each time, but Warburton and an older woman were the only two who were managing distribution. Probably for the best, Brian thought. They had added emergency medical technicians to the room. People were needing oxygen. Sedation. Unreal, this only happened in movies. This didn't happen in real life. You'd think he'd have gotten past this reaction after all he'd been through. This was why he had never wanted to feel anything. But if he didn't feel anything, who would be there for Justin? This whole scene, so twilight bizarre, and he would be here, he wouldn't change anything. If this was Justin's life, he was glad he was here, in it. Justin's life, yes, his life. We still don't know anything, he told himself. Until then... again and again.
The first time Warburton had pulled him aside to hand him a photograph, he had warned him. “Brian, they covered this man’s head with a towel, so I don’t know… they thought it best. I’m afraid it’s still…” He hadn’t said anything more, just handed Brian the picture.
His hands were shaking again. He took a deep breath, felt his stomach twist. Oh God, oh dear God, no please. No. Finally, he looked down.
The young man’s head was covered with a towel, as Warburton had said, but Brian knew, from the deep laceration that blossomed up to the hairline, the black burn across the jaw and down the neck, that what was underneath the drapery would be impossible to take in and remain sane. Now he understood why that man had fainted. He felt the blood rush from his own head, felt dizzy for a moment, shook his head.
“No, it’s not him.” Oh, fuck, thank God, thank God. He staggered back to Mary, almost fell back into the chair, leaned forward onto his thighs and covered his head with his arms. Oh, thank God. Mary had rubbed his back. He hadn’t told her to fuck off and not touch him. It had actually felt good.
Ten minutes later, Warburton had approached again, but this time he had approached Mary. She whimpered. “No, Mrs. Clark, there’s an eight-year old girl we think is your daughter, who has just revived from a fairly serious case of smoke inhalation. We think she’s Grace.” He handed her a picture, and Mary started weeping, hyperventillating. “It’s her, I gotta go.”
“We have transportation arranged, Linda will take you to Cook County.” Mary stood, then turned back to Warburton. “Jack…”
He shook his head. “She was brought out by another passenger. She gets hysterical when asked, it was best to wait for you.”
Mary took a deep, shuddering breath. Then she turned to Brian, who watched her, glad for her, but knowing before he met her eyes, that guilt that would lurk there. He remembered what she said about her husband. Yup, bingo, that guilt, shame. She squared her shoulders, reached down, clasped his shoulder with a strong hand. “I hope you get good news soon.”
He nodded, and watched her walk away.
The next photograph came just before Jennifer arrived, and he had been very glad she was spared that. Burns. Apparently that was the big problem right now. Smoke inhalation and burns. If they survived the initial crash. But again, not Justin. And it wasn't easier the second time, to look at the face of a horribly injured stranger whose eyes would never open again, but thank God, thank God, the relief was the same, too.
“Do they know anything?” Jennifer asked as they sat down, to wait some more.
“You don’t want to know,” Brian answered, remembering the video he’d watch. “Don’t watch the tv yet. Not til… not until we know something.” He watched Jennifer out of the corner of his eye, wondering how she would handle this situation. He wouldn’t blame her if she’d somehow found a way to take out her anger on him.
Instead, she turned to him and took his cold left hand in both of hers. They were surprisingly warm. “How are you?” she asked.
“Same as you, I imagine. Is Molly okay?”
“I don’t know,” Jennifer replied. "I dropped her off with a friend of mine." She paused. “I was hoping he’d have called you.” Her eyes, searching his, knowing he would have told her right away.
He offered what he could. “He leaves his cell phone in his jacket when he travels. And he puts his jacket in the overhead. He wouldn’t have time to get it, I imagine.”
“But still, he would have called.”
Brian shrugged. “Doubt it. All our numbers are on speed dial, I doubt he’s memorized any.”
Hope seemed to light for the first time in her eyes. “But he’d have the numbers written down somewhere, he’s not that stupid…”
“In his wallet. In his jacket. In the overhead.” Brian didn’t know if that was absolutely true, but it most likely was (he wanted it to be).
Jennifer nodded. Then she cocked her head to the side, studying him. He waited, unable to summon any defense to whatever this was. “You know,” she said, “when I went to the counter at Liberty Air, they told me Justin’s husband had managed to catch the earlier flight, that I’d be with family when I got to Chicago. I felt… really glad about that. It was nice to know I had, well, family who would be there. I don’t think I could do this alone. And... I'm glad he has you.”
He could have said any number of things at that. He could have pointed out that he didn’t want to risk any shit because his status was not considered legitimate, and that word had seemed the easiest way to bypass issues. Of course, he could have said he was an uncle. Or a half brother. Well, he hadn’t thought of that, had he, but even if he had… He still would have said what he did. It was easier. Less bullshit. He just nodded, and they sat in silence.
“Brian?” Warburton gestured Brian from a few feet away. He held another picture. Jennifer shifted forward, but Brian shook his head. “I’ll go do it, trust me, you don’t…” He saw her face. “I’ll do this, okay?” He gave her hand a last squeeze, let go, stood, and took the picture. One more deep breath, the odds were getting bad here. “This young man is alive,” Warbuton said as he handed the picture over.
Brian looked down. Took a huge breath, knew she was just sitting mere feet away, still had to yell with the explosion of breath from his lungs, its huge release, “JENNIFER!”