Arliss, seated in a hard plastic chair, looked again at the flight information monitor above his head. It was huge, almost the size of a billboard.
Minneapolis … Delayed
Atlanta … On Time
Los Angeles … Delayed
Seattle … Delayed
His hands were so damp he wondered if he was still standing out in the rain but knew he was inside the terminal where it was warm and dry. Even so, he was cold and wrapped his arms around his chest. His head down, he leaned forward in the chair, hoping no one noticed his lips trembling.
“Flight 248, from Tokyo, has arrived at Gate 6,” a nasally voice announced, interrupting the theme from “A Summer Place” that had been playing throughout the terminal.
All around him were people with smiles almost as broad as their foreheads. He assumed
they were excited because they were going away on some longplanned holiday or because they were waiting to greet friends and relatives they had not seen in a long time.
A portly man in a plaid cap performed a clumsy jig in front of a little girl whose eyes were as bright as the bows in her hair. Another man, much younger, embraced a woman who appeared to be his mother. A father lifted a baby above his head and whirled her around and around. A couple, near Arliss’ age, kissed so passionately he felt embarrassed to be watching them and quickly looked up at the flight information screen.
Once he had shared their enthusiasm when he went to the airport, usually because he was flying to some place where it was not raining every other day, but not anymore. Now he felt an overwhelming sense of dread.
Stretching out his arms, he stared for a moment at the deep burn mark on his left arm. It extended from above his elbow to his wrist and was so dark that people often assumed it was some kind of tattoo. It looked ghastly so he seldom wore short-sleeved shirts. The only reason he wore one this morning was because he had on a windbreaker that covered his arms except when he raised them above his head.
Idly he pressed a finger against the dark mark which never turned white because it was such
a severe burn. He knew he was fortunate, though, because many others on the Paramount flight to Seattle suffered much more serious injuries in the crash. Close to a dozen lost their lives, including two flight attendants.
“You must not regret that you survived,” Taichman told him shortly after he entered his office.
“So you say but I wonder.” “Really I don’t.”
Paramount Airline offered to the survivors the services of three therapists who specialized in cases of post-traumatic stress. Arliss was reluctant to seek counseling, didn’t see what was to be gained from talking about the crash, but after receiving repeated calls from a representative of the airline, he agreed to see one of the shrinks. It was a mistake. Taichman was someone who loved the sound of his own voice, the sort of therapist popular on television talk shows who was full of contrived sincerity and obvious remedies. Arliss scarcely paid any attention to what he said, having heard it all before on the tube.
“Flight 177, from San Francisco, has arrived at Gate 3 and is ready for boarding.”
Clare, a neighbor in his apartment building, was adamant that meditation would help him cope with the anguish he had been experiencing since the plane went down. So, as she suggested, he tried to watch his breath a few minutes each day to keep from thinking about what happened that awful night. He was grateful for the suggestion but doubted if it would provide anymore relief than the glib advice dispensed by Taichman.
“Are you who I think you are?” a fidgety young man seated almost directly across from him asked.
Arliss cringed a little because the young man faintly resembled one of the passengers who perished on the Paramount flight. “I don’t know. Am I?”
“It’s you. I know it is.”
“I don’t think so.”
“I do,” he insisted, glaring at him. Then he got up and scurried away, snapping the fingers of both hands.
Urgently he strained to rid the image of the dead passenger from his mind. Out.
Leaning back in the uncomfortable chair, he saw that the flight from San Diego bound for Seattle was still on schedule and he sighed audibly. Taichman had offered to accompany him on the Seattle stretch of the flight, as a test to see if he had overcome his fear of flying, but late yesterday afternoon his secretary called to notify him the shrink would not be able to make the flight. She didn’t say why and he didn’t ask. Still he came out to the airport anyway, wondering if he had the nerve to board the plane on his own. He had been waiting in the terminal close to an hour and he still didn’t know if he could do it.
One breath after another he watched: in, out, in, out.