The flight between Yuma and LA took about three hours, so Carrie had plenty of time to look at all the other passengers and imagine how much better their lives were than hers:
The young woman in front of her probably got it on every night with her hunky boyfriend.
The older woman in the row directly across the aisle and her perfect six-something-year-old grandson who talked in long, clear sentences, unlike her own son of the same age who could count to within 10,000 but not explain where something hurt.
The suit-guy behind them who looked bored out of his mind but didn’t even think twice about showering in cologne of the same brand she had saved a month last year to buy for Jon’s birthday.
Carrie knew in her heart that all the speculation about the other passengers was complete bullshit. But it was another damn drug she couldn’t clean out of her system.
She told herself to try harder. Of course, someone had lost a mother recently or gotten fired from his job or maybe had some other unsettling news that would change their lives forever.
So get those steel wire muscles in your shoulders to unwind, missy …
As she sat there, legs tightly crossed, in the moderately sized Boeing from American Airlines, Carrie experimented with several positions to rest her head. Preferably combined with a setting of air conditioning that didn’t make her sneeze. But it felt like a math problem without a solution.
Next to Carrie, Emma was fidgeting with her trusty but venerable phone. “Mom, can I play now?”
“I think you can,” Carrie said, “but do you know how to get on their Wi-Fi?”
“It’s just a game.” Her daughter tapped the little screen with satisfaction. “I don’t need to be online.”
Carrie sighed. “Fantastic … Let me know if you need help with anything else.”
“I will, Mom.”
Carrie breathed in deeply and tried to lean more on her pull-over which he had folded so it was resting between her head and the wall close to the window. The math still didn’t add up. She shifted irritably in her seat.
It was supposed to be good, this part of the plane. Carrie’s mother had bought seats for them that were close to the emergency exits so there’d be a bit more room for the legs, but not much.
Deborah had offered to pay for first class, but Carrie had pointedly said that there weren’t that many flights from Yuma with first class seats and if they were to wait for one they couldn’t come the weekend they had agreed. And that was the end of that. Thank God.
She heard a beep from Emma’s phone and knew that Minecraft had just started another round.
“You are really into Minecraft these days, huh?”
Emma shrugged. “Marie plays it and … I was hoping maybe Michael would, too.”
Carrie was about to answer, when the hot young thing in the row in front of theirs started snickering and looking very lovey-dovey at her boyfriend.
For fuck’s sake …
The woman was African-American with smooth silky-black hair that draped itself beautifully around her shoulders. She was likely younger than Mr. Hunk. Maybe early twenties?
“We can’t do that,” Carrie heard the boyfriend say in a meaningful whisper. And the woman snickered again and there was that sparkle in her eyes. Energy and life, and promises of lots of beautiful things to come.
Carrie hated it.
She tried to lean back but her shoulders still rebelled.
There had been a questionnaire on her stepfather’s website that you had to fill out before you could attend any of his courses. Not that she had decided if she wanted to yet.
But she had forced herself to be open to the possibility, since Marcus and her mom apparently had worked out a little deal that would allow her to get some financial security for once.
If only she played along and completed one of Church Universal’s ever-growing row of self-realization courses and … something more which wasn’t entirely clear yet except that it probably included some kind of promotional activity.
That was what she was going to LA to discuss, while Emma was going to see her friend, Marie, and hopefully be happy there for two days. Unlike at home.
She looked at her own phone again and the too-small text of the questionnaire:
Question # 14: How much time will you allocate to each exercise in the Life Manifestation Course?
Gee, I don’t know … maybe I’ll manifest some time for it after Michael wakes up at two o’clock in the morning and stops screaming his lungs out?
Her mouth felt dry but there was nothing to drink and the flight attendant was nowhere in sight. They had been in the air for only twenty minutes. Two hours and 45 minutes to go.
She closed her eyes and tried to daydream. Anything to get away from this can of happy sardines.
But what should she dream about?
Drawing? When had she last done that? Like sex …
A better job? Could be …, but it felt further beyond the realm of possibility than the existence of God.
But perhaps … oh, yes … there he was:
As good as new. No trace of the mine that had blown him to nothingness twelve years ago in Afghanistan.
In fact, he looked better than ever. Sandy hair, gray-blue eyes, that mischievous smile. He was still older than her somehow, even though she should be older than him now. And even though he looked as when she last seen him.
But he would always be her big brother even if he was ‘another step’. That didn’t matter. He was family. He had never felt like an impostor. Like … Marcus Chen.
“Hullo, sis,” he said. “Feel like going to the beach?”
“Oh, yes.” She ran to him, and got lost in a big hug. The Timothy McDonnell special. Good big hugs.
Carrie pulled back a bit and studied his face. God, she missed him so much. Even those ever-present marks around one of his eyes, or mouth, usually purple-ish. They would have looked a little like make-up from a distance, but she knew better.
“Been in a fight again, Tim? I thought you didn’t do those things in the afterlife?”
He grinned and took her hand. “I thought ye didnae believe in the afterlife?”
“Maybe I do now?” She clenched his hand and let him lead her down a velvet green hill to the beach.
Talisker Beach. With all the polished gray stones, wet with seawater and draped in seaweed and all perfect to play on—if you weren’t afraid of Pa’s wrath. Or of breaking an arm.
She gazed around, smiling, as everything came into view. It was just perfect. There was even that special light that was always there on Skye, no matter if it was cloudy autumn or a shiny summer’s day.
Her brother waited as she took in the scenery. “Everything is perfect.”
She turned and smiled at him. “It’s so good to be with you. You have no idea what … has happened since …” She looked down.
He shrugged. “I’m here now. And this is a pretty good place to stay.”
“I bet,” she said. “Does it have all your old vinyl records, too?”
He smirked. “All of them. Even the one with Manowar that ye hated because it sounded like they yelled your name and were drunk at the same time.”
“Yeah, I remember … but right now I wish you could come home to us and play all that loud heavy metal just for me.” Carrie picked up a stone from the beach. It felt wet and sleek in her hand, just like she had expected. “I guess ‘heaven’ will have to do, huh?”
Tim walked over to her with firm paces. “This place is as close as any kind of heaven I know of …”
He stopped right in front of her, placing his hands on her shoulders. Their eyes met. She shivered.
“Caroline,” he said, “what are ye going to spend that money on?”
Somewhere in the air above California, Carrie almost jumped in her seat.
That right-on-the-nose tone … it sounded too much like Timothy!
And it had felt so … real?
It had to have come from her. No reason to get all spooked. Definitely no reason to be like her mother back in the day. How many ‘visionary dreams’ had Deborah Sawyer had from angels and whatnot?
Carrie closed her eyes again. Everything was fine. No problems at all.
And hey, if this was her own private time-out she might as well continue the imaginary beach tour.
So back on Talisker Beach, Caroline McDonnell pressed the stone she had picked up into her brother’s palm. “I don’t even know if I want to receive the money, if this … setup will work, for any of us. I mean, if Marcus is interested in paying me to promote his courses, he should just say so.”
“It’s Deborah—your Ma.” Timothy’s Scottish brogue was thick and lovely. Just like hers once had been. “She is nae doolally like mine, but she thinks she knows what is right for ye. She does nae. Ye have to figure that one out on your own.”
“I know,” she said softly.
He threw the stone at her feet. “Somehow, Caroline, I dinnae think ye do!”
On the plane, Carrie opened her eyes again like she had been kicked. Her heart was pounding.
What the … ? I didn’t—
Emma looked up from the 13th round of Minecraft, “Mom, is something wrong?”
“No, I just—maybe I need something to drink.” She waved at the steward who had finally come into view. He came down to their seats with professional haste.
“Can you get me some water, please?” Carrie asked, her voice raw.
“We will soon be around with more refreshments, but I can bring you some now.”
The steward glided away as smoothly as he had arrived. She had dreamed of being an airline stewardess once. That was in a weak moment after she had become clean and then hooked up with Jon. But before she had had Emma. And … Michael.
“Mom?” Emma looked inquiringly at Carrie again.
“It’s nothing, darling. Play on.”
Carrie’s shoulders felt like a tangle of wires now. She wasn’t thinking anymore about all the others, where they’d been, who they’d been with, where they’d go. Suddenly, she could only think of that beach and of time.
Her brother had been dead for twelve years. She was 36—going on 37. She didn’t want to go.
She only wanted to go back to that beach and stay there, even if Tim could no longer walk with her.
Even if her relationship with her father, who still lived on that damn island, was anything but … clear.
But she couldn’t bloody go anywhere like that, could she? She was stuck in that derelict desert city and in her crappy job, which they needed to keep the house. She was married to Jonathan Reese and had two children, one of them with a diagnosis, and no time to breathe. Or to be married.
Long before all that she had fled to the U.S. with her mom and … somehow everything had fallen apart and she had ended up on the road for a few years. Lots of fear and loathing but she got back to Normal Life™, eventually.
So was this what victory looked like? If you beat drugs, didn’t you deserve to … feel happy afterwards?
Did you deserve … a life with a child who you might have to look after forever, because he would always be so hampered by all that he was and all that he couldn’t be?
Suddenly Carrie felt anxiety rise in her, like a sea of prickly ants rushing through her body.
She tried to think of her stepfather’s promised ‘gift’ and what if it finally give her a break and turn at least some small part of her life around—make it into something she herself would shape. Something … something … something.
She didn’t have a lot of options because of the care Michael needed to manage his autism, but if they hired enough nannies, the right nannies, trained them … maybe Jon and Emma could be alone with Michael for, what, a month?
Then she could go to Morocco, like she had always dreamed of.
Escape being Mrs. Reese for a little while, escape all those … chains.
She would be free. Again.
But there was no relief at that vision. Carrie could feel her pulse hammering away. She felt sweat on the skin of her throat. She gulped for air.
“Mom?” Emma sounded really worried now.
“Ma’am, can I help you?” The steward was back. “Do you need to lie down?”
“She is having a panic attack,” Emma’s voice was calm but clipped. “It happens sometimes.”
“Does she have any medication with her?”
“Some pills …” Emma started. “But she won’t tell me where they are.”
The steward nodded and waved at someone somewhere to come down.
The couple in the row in front had stopped snickering and had now turned around.
The man in the suit behind them had stopped reading The Times, and was frowning.
Everyone in the bloody world was looking at her now, Carrie Reese — once upon a time Caroline McDonnell … Once upon a time there was a girl on a beach, with a clear sky over her.
And a brother. And a mother. And a father.
A best friend.
Several, in fact.
But that was over twenty years ago. That was in another life. A life that would never come back.
Carrie felt like every breath was like trying to take a spoonful of air at a time in her lungs. It wasn’t enough.
She heard voices. “Get her on the floor. Get some oxygen for her.”
She saw Emma’s stoic, pale face hovering over her.
When she opened her eyes, she didn’t know how long she had been out. But she was no longer on the plane.
She was on the beach again.
Only this time the light was even stronger. It was everywhere. It was like you could … touch it.
Her brother was there again, and …
“Michael!” Carrie got up and ran to him. She had been lying down in the sand but her clothes didn’t feel wet. She only felt …
She hugged her boy. Little Michael with the unruly blonde hair. He was grinning at her. “Look, mom.” He pointed to several circles of the dark gray stones, laid out in a perfect circular pattern, like a dartboard, but without the numbers.
Carrie was on her knees, holding Michael. She looked at him in wonder. He seemed older somehow.
“Isn’t it beautiful?” Michael said, and pointed at the stone circles. “It’s for you, Mom.”
“Michael … oh, god …” she covered her mouth in her hands “ … you can talk?!”
Her brother nodded at her, something glinting in his gray eyes. He turned and began walking down the beach.
Carrie got up again quickly to follow, but Michael called out. “Mom, won’t you look at my gift?”
“It’s Tim—your uncle—I have to go after him.”
“You can’t,” Michael said. “It’s just me now.”
And he was right. Her brother was gone.
“Can you hear me?”
She woke up. Again.
A middle-aged woman—Asian—with big, thoughtful eyes, had both her hands on Carrie’s cheeks and looked straight at her.
“It’s okay, Mom. She is a doctor.”
Emma’s voice. She could hear Emma. But Carrie’s head was spinning. She was faintly aware everyone else—staring. Above her. She was on the floor.
“Can you hear me?” The older woman’s voice was firm. “Say your name.”
“Caroline … Caroline Mc …” She shook her head, swallowed.
“No,” she then said in a clear voice. “My name is Carrie Reese.”
Last edit 1 Sep 2023