Off He Goes

“God I hate flying,” Jack said as he glared through thedirty window. He looked at the time on his phone and then at the line of carsin front of them. Katie pumped the brakes through two-lane traffic as she hummedalong with the radio. Jack checked the time again. “What time is my flight?” Hedug through his plane bag in search of his itinerary.“10 am,” Katie said.

They approached a red light and Jack extended his neck tolook beyond the line of cars. “We’ll make it on time, right?” His leg bouncedup and down; heel stomping on the floor board as he rifled through pockets inhis bag.

Katie flicked on the blinker to switch lanes. “We’ll make iton time. We always do.” For the past year the frequent route to the airport hadtaught her the best lanes to maneuver. She moved to the right to avoid the carsheading for the freeway or to the left to avoid the right turns into a clusterof mini malls that advertised dental exams through signs with missing bulbs; akid on the sidewalk dressed in a statue of liberty costume, amongst the dyingpalm trees, sweating as he danced and twirled, promising freedom from debt. Sheadmired the kids who did the job with great enthusiasm and nerve and hoped theywere paid a decent wage but knew they probably weren’t. 

They made the final left onto the last stretch of roadtoward the airport where traffic eased up and Jack’s leg would stop bouncing.Katie tightened her grip on the steering wheel with this final mile and loweredthe volume on the radio. Jack shuffled through more pockets, checked his phonefor emails and began to reorganize.

“Are you going to see your mom or brother on this trip orjust work stuff with the band?” Her effort to make conversation forced thenervous knot in her chest to move down toward her ribcage. “I don’t know; I doubtit.” Katie had a silent response. She knew it would prompt him to expand hisanswer. “I mean, Luke is in the city so maybe, but you know how that goes. Idon’t feel like going to Mom’s and she doesn’t leave the suburbs.” Katie stayedquiet and shook her head at the impossibility.

His words punched further. “I’m just glad this trip toChicago has nothing to do with death and all that fucking shit this time.” Thosewords, a gloomy reminder said out loud, encouraged her to turn the car around, butshe continued forward. She wanted to protect Jack, and herself, from his returnto his hometown filled with the murkiness of alcohol or the dulling of pills;the excuses and sadness. A grey cloud seemed to shadow over every head.

“It has been months since we’ve seen any of your family,”she said, not knowing if that was a good or bad thing, as she felt both. It allseemed to come with such consequence.

“Since Josh died, everyone went their own way for sure.” Thesound of her father-in-law’s name sounded odd and unfamiliar. He had avoidedthe subject since Josh’s death. “I guess we saw Patrick that one time, rightafter the funeral, but no Olivia.”

Katie pulled herself back to that day, several monthsearlier in Venice Beach. Jack’s Aunt Olivia had some old photos of she and Joshas kids and wanted Jack to have them. They dropped by as requested but alwayseager to go. Their neighborhood was a colony of artists and the house was anoasis from the grind of Jack and Katie’s compact apartment in the Fairfaxdistrict of Los Angeles. Patrick would share his latest project of photos froman Indian tribe he befriended and lived with for weeks. Olivia was simply gratefulto be on hiatus from the grueling hours of her most recent film shoot. The lifeof a makeup artist was becoming more difficult for her as she ascended into her60’s but hard work was the benchmark in Jack’s family and each break was shortlived. She would graciously pour shots of her favorite vodka, the label alwaysin Polish, honoring the family heritage. She fluttered around the kitchen,which also reserved a spot as her office; the counters stacked with scripts andresearch for the next job. Tan and glowing, a spirit as free as a white dresson a windy day, she carried a curious smile letting you know she held manysecrets. Katie was intimidated by Olivia and her lifestyle, aware of her ownunaccomplished desire to be that carefree. This thought provoked a memory fromKatie.

“I noticed something really strange between Olivia andPatrick just before your dad’s funeral.” Jack was still preoccupied but saidwith a laugh, “Olivia and Patrick are strange.”

“Yes, but strange even for them. I was sitting in the cornerand they didn’t notice me. She was upset and reached over to take Patrick’shand for comfort and he pulled away, like aggressively pulled away.…and she didn’tdo anything, didn’t react. They both just stood there, not saying anything toeach other. I’d never seen them like that before. I mentioned it to Liza but shewas full of pain killers and rolled her eyes and said, ‘Patrick’s a dick.’”

As they turned the corner to enter the airport, Jack put awayhis phone. “Liza has never liked Patrick so who knows. The well has beenpoisoned when it comes to men so she wouldn’t like anyone her mom married.” Katiepulled into Terminal 3 as Jack gathered his things. She broke the routine andgot out of the car to help with his bag and tell him goodbye. Things had beenbetter between them over the past few months and she had the urge to hug andkiss him and tell him everything was going to be ok. Jack anxiously fumbledthrough his pockets once more, his mind already inside the terminal. “It’sgoing to be fine,” she reasoned. “Try to take a nap on the plane and it will beover with before you know it.” She noticed the sweat on his brow as he leaneddown to give her a quick kiss goodbye. He grabbed his stuff and left.

Katie got back into the car, the passenger seat now emptyand it filled her up with a sudden sadness and loss. She navigated through trafficand exited the airport, now in her rearview mirror and tears rolled down herface. She felt more alone now than she had in all the months she and Jack hadsaid little to each other and hated she’d be without him for the next few days.She didn’t know why but fear gripped her and she said a prayer out loud. “God,please watch over Jack and return him home to me.” She took a deep breath tosteady her nerves, turned up the radio and continued forward.

Katie sat in her cubicle and stared at her inbox. She glancedat the upper right corner for the time and thought of Jack as he had done thesame with his phone, which now seemed like a week ago. She decided a second cupof coffee would waste some time so she headed across the hall to the breakroom.A pink donut box was on the counter, one vanilla cream donut cut in two, thefilling still half in the pastry and half smeared on the thin grease-soakedthin paper protecting the bottom of the box. She poked at it with a plasticknife, deciding whether to feed her stress or starve it. The sound of her cellphone vibrating at her desk interrupted the process. She took a step toward thedoor, realized it couldn’t be Jack and turned back toward her coffee cup. Shewould satisfy her sugar stress with 4 mini tubs of a hazelnut flavored whiteliquid found in bowls of old diners. She stirred in the black coffee with aplastic stick and felt it bend to the heat and wondered which of the chemicalsfrom the plastic or the imitation sweetness would harm her the most. Her cellphone buzzed again. Intrigued she abandoned the donut and with her coffee,returned to her desk to find two missed calls from Jack’s cousin Liza. This wasno surprise as Liza was in the habit of inviting Katie over for dinner whenJack was out of town but she wasn’t aware Liza knew Jack’s schedule. Theirearlier conversation indicated no one had been in touch. Liza was one of Olivia’stwo daughters and the only one who carried Olivia’s ease and confidence; thekind that stunningly beautiful people possessed. When Katie first saw Liza acrossthe room at a party, she had thought she was Julia Roberts. When she saw her upclose she discovered she was more beautiful than her initial impression. Lizatold a joke and laughed at that joke with such joy, causing Katie to love herinstantly. She had gone out of her way to make Katie feel part of the family. Theirvisits had become less frequent in the past year but that never interfered withtheir relationship. Katie suspected Liza had a quiet addiction to pain killers.The little white pills were always available and offered to her and Jack after dinnerat Liza’s house in the valley, which they never turned down. After the ride homeover the hill back to their apartment, they would consume the pill and a bottleof wine and digest and untangle any recent family news Liza was able to provide.There was always drama and this provided a nice relaxing buzz.

Before Katie could return Liza’s call the phone buzzed inher hand again. “Hi Liza, I was just call-” Liza interrupted Katie, her speech unsurprisinglyslow and slurred but held an unusual urgent edge. “I’ff been tryin to callJack. Do you know where he izz?”

“He’s on a plane on his way to Chicago. What’s up?”

There was silence on the other end of the line and thenervous knot returned to Katie’s chest; a familiar grip on her heart, squeezingwhile it tried to beat its way free. “Shit,” was all Liza could say.

“What’s going on?” More silence. Katie wondered if Liza hasfallen asleep on the other end of the line. Everyone in Jack’s family not onlyshared addiction but also a love for drama. Something awful happened or sheneeded Jack to pick up some milk because her car was broken. “LIZA! What is it?What’s going on?”

“They found my mother and Patrick dead this morning.”

Now Katie said nothing. She couldn’t comprehend the wordshanging out there, laughing; little devils ready to do their work ofdestruction and chaos. She heard herself speak but wasn’t sure where the words camefrom. She was in some unspecified space in the air, like Jack, above whateverwas happening on the ground. “Who found them? What do you mean, dead?” Katie’sears betrayed her when she heard Liza say the same words again. When Liza saidthe next words, Katie’s ears and body fell numb.

“They think murder-suicide.”

She clung to the edge of her desk to steady herself. She lookedat the clock and tried to calculate Jack’s arrival; when he would be destroyedall over again; a vase glued back together, only to be knocked to the floor. Katiepleaded for more information as if she were watching a movie she’d seen a hundredtimes but still hoping for another ending. “Liza, what happened?” Liza answeredwith long pauses between sentences, sucking on a cigarette before she continuedwith more non-information that seemed to take decades to tell. “I don’t know………I’mwaiting outside the house in Venice…….Cops everywhere and the area is tapedoff……….I haven’t been able to get in.” Katie wondered if Liza had really triedor was too afraid they’d arrest her for possession. God knows what they wouldfind inside Aunt Olivia’s house.

Katie had a panicked thought. “Liza, did you leave Jack amessage?”

“I leffft him a vhew…. told him to call me back… told him itwas an emershuncy.” Katie knew she had to act quickly, although she wasn’t surewhat to do. “I have to go. I’ll find Jack.”

Katie sat in her chair, unable to move. She picked up herphone and began to call Jack and then ended the call. She looked at the clockagain. She reached for the phone a second time but pulled back in confusion.She put her head in her hands, her body shaking, this new information settlinginto her core; head clouded, images of Olivia and Patrick flooding her mind.“Pull it together,” she said and took the biggest breath she could muster,forcing herself to focus. She reached for the phone one last time. Her hands shookand caused many typos as she started a text. Frustrated and unable to let thetypos slide, she finally got it as right as it could be: Call me before you listen to your voicemail. When she sent the textup into the air to Jack, she shut her eyes tight, feeling the tears fight theirway out and down her cheeks. She grabbed a tissue, wiped her face and pulled upthe airline website to track his flight. A cartoon plane sat on a flight path,a red line sprouting from where the day started at LAX. It hovered somewhereabove the far end of Colorado heading toward Chicago. Katie stared at the mapand imagined Jack sleeping, his head back, mouth open and probably snoring. Sherefreshed the page and waited.

When she saw the word “landed”on the screen she felt her heart pump through her chest. She fumbled for thephone, held her breath and waited for him to answer. The sound of his voicesurprised her and she realized the moment was finally happening and talked asfast as she could.

“Hi Jack. Listen, you’re probably going to see a bunch of voicemailspop up on your phone-”

“I already have. It looks like Liza called but I couldn’tunderstand her. What’s going on?”

His voice was tired and she was disappointed her plan tobeat Liza’s messages hadn’t worked. She could hear her heart: thump thump thump. She had planned herwords but now the moment had arrived, everything escaped her.  “Are you still on the plane?” He confirmed andshe pictured his tall frame, shoved in a small seat, his space invaded bystrangers. “Why don’t you call me back once you’re off the plane so you don’thave to shuffle your bag and the pho-“

“What’s going on?” Jack insisted.

“I really would rather you call me back.”

“KATIE! What is it?”

“They found Olivia and Patrick this morning. They’re deadJack…….Liza said murder-suicide but that’s all I know. “

Everything fell silent and then a familiar furious and dark toneof Jack’s she had encountered before returned on the other end. “I’ll call youback.”

The phone call ended. It was done.

The rest of the afternoon, Katie trudged through emails and mechanicallyanswered her boss’ phone but her only thought was Olivia killed Patrick, Olivia killed Patrick. The words were like adream; a different reality. Olivia killedPatrick. Her mind was racing from thought to thought. How and when and what happened? Were they sure that’s what happened?Was it immediate? How could Olivia do this? And to Patrick? Had there been astruggle and was it self-defense? Once it happened then maybe Olivia couldn’tlive with it and did herself in? Liza had said Patrick was a dick. What did sheknow that the rest of them didn’t? Oh my gosh, we’ll never have Easter brunchthere again. She thought of the engagement photos Patrick had taken acouple of years ago and still had thenegatives. He hadn’t wanted to takethem but Olivia pushed him to pick up his camera and take them anyway. Why didn’t he want to take them? He hadn’tbeen working. Was she angry about him not working enough and she had to carrythe load for both of them? How was Jack going to handle this and what about therest of the family. Olivia killed Patrick. They are both dead.This is anightmare. The questions and images refused to quiet down; Olivia’s beauty andPatrick’s soft-spoken demeanor, nose large for his face, a canopy for his thickblack mustache. Everyone had compared him to Groucho Marx and Olivia to a rayof magical light and now they’re both gone. Poof.

Katie had eaten dinner, fed the cat, read through the mailand taken out the trash. She sat on the couch with no memory of completingthese daily duties. Music played as she smoked a joint and stared at the catinnocently bathing himself. He looked back at her, blinking, and gradually fellasleep. The apartment felt strange without Jack there. He usually dictated thevibe by the music he would play; what important game was on, selling her on allthe points of why it was important they watch and pay attention. She had theirspace all to herself and should have celebrated the brief freedom but insteadit weighed her down. She found herself going through the same motions as if hewere there. The game was on the muted TV and she worked off their playlist. Herindependence came through music choice however as she decided to listen to analbum front to back instead of the shuffle method Jack insisted on. The order,journey and completion of the artists’ intention made her mind feel more inorder than the chaos of random selection. She would make a point to do thismore often and begun a list of artists on her laptop she wanted to add to herown playlist. She planned to submerge herself in this process on her dailywalks around the neighborhood; the only time she was alone. She added the listto the same folder that contained other goals of unread books, diets andcreative projects to improve their tiny apartment she planned to one dayaccomplish. She looked around their apartment and felt like it would all cavein. The iron security bars on the window were intertwined with a greenovergrown bush that had shielded the entire window, blocking out and sort ofsunlight during the day except for the top left corner where it hadn’t quitereached. The other windows along one side of their unit looked into theapartments of the building smashed up against theirs and were rarely uncoveredin fear both sides would peek into each other’s private lives. The oppositeside was one solid wall that continued down a long hallway to their bedroom andbathroom that ran the interior of the main hallway of their building. Thebuilding was active with film makers, writers and budding internetentrepreneurs. She was never alone when she was alone, surrounded by footsteps,yelling up and down hallways, smokers beyond the giant bush outside, sex nextdoor or arguments upstairs. She had made a habit of talking no louder than acertain decimal; a prisoner talking to her cellmate, certain every word wouldbe discovered.  

The phone rang and woke up the cat who jumped down and ranback toward the bedroom to finish his nap.

“Hi babe.” The sound of his voice gave her so much comfort.

“How are you holding up?”

“OK. The band did great. There were lots of people so thatwas good. They seemed happy. They’re at an after party now. I’m sitting outsideon a curb.”

“Did you see Luke?”

“Yeah, for about 5 minutes.”

“Five minutes? Why only five minutes?” She already knew theanswer.

“He came in, I bought us shots and then he asked me fortwenty bucks for smokes. Said he’d be right back and that’s the last I saw ofhim.”

“Twenty bucks for cigarettes and he split?”

“I’m sure he went and scored somewhere. The band was hungryso I finally left to get tacos….and to look for him. Of course he was nowhere. Iam so out of it and I wasn’t paying attention and I tripped on the curb and tacoswent flying and I went down.” Jack was chuckling at himself.

“Oh my gosh, are you ok? Wait, on the same curb you aresitting on now?” Jack started to laugh harder. “Yes, I scraped up my knee andtore a hole in my good jeans but that’s it. You should have seen all thesetacos flying everywhere. I’m still staring at them.” They both laughed togetheruntil Jack was suddenly quiet and she realized he had started to cry.

“I’m so sorry Jack.”

“I mean….Josh justdied and now his sister…” They sat together on the phone, nothing to be said.He caught his breath. “I’m sorry about my jeans.”

“Jack….I love you. We’ll get through this. I don’t know how butwe will, like we have everything else.”

“Everything else.”

Katie could hear him shuffling around, picking himself upoff the ground. I guess I should gocheck on the band to see if they need anything; anything besides tacos. Also,I’ve changed my flight. I’m coming home tomorrow night.”

“Are you sure? Don’t you need to be there for work?”

“I want to be at home with you. They’ll understand. Thank youfor being there. I’m sorry I have to put you through this again.”

“Jack, you haven’t done anything. This isn’t your fault.”

“I love you.”

They ended the call and Katie looked at the clock andcounted the hours until she’d head back to the airport.

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writing declanhead
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A Word from the Writer
I would love comments/suggestions/critiques as I am in the polishing stages.