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The path had been rough. Now, finally, she could let go of at least some of the bone-crushing guilt that had weighed her down for almost her entire life. Those kids didn’t understand that platitudes and naïve optimism didn’t make up for the fact that no one could live their life for them. Making decisions based on what someone else wanted would bring them nothing but regret in the end.
A stray bit of sunlight stabbed through the un-tinted glass wall, causing her contacts to darken rapidly and temporarily blind her. Cursing, she blinked in annoyance. It was like a long-forgotten message from beyond after decades of silence. It reminded her that she may think loftily, her actions didn’t always match; she hadn’t wanted to send that guitar, after all.
Okay, fine, she told the light. Starting now, she’d follow her principles. To the letter.
But she had wanted to keep it, and even now, the loss of it was a hole in her.
The light didn’t answer, which was nothing new. Her motorchair slowed next to the familiar little hole-in-the-wall airport bar that she knew would be in her path. It wasn’t like she’d taken this route on purpose, but as long as she was here, she may as well take a peek. Just one last look at the memory of a young woman who thought her biggest problems in life were sex, money, and emotional baggage. That woman had sat in that bar, on her way to try to save the world, like always.
If only she could go up to that idealist, so much like her and yet so different, and scream in her face: “You ignored me for years! You cared about everyone except me. You thought you could hide from me, and shut me out? Well, guess what? I won. I’m the one who’s still here.”
After absently untying her short, curly, black ponytail and reassembled it. There was no point in dwelling, she counseled herself. That young woman was a long-gone distant memory, although the abandonment and bitterness remained. Still, despite the anger, there was the sadness for what that girl would have to go through. In this airport, years ago, there’d been a path of heartache, and every crossroad would result in the absolute wrong choice. There was no going back, only forward.
After almost ten more minutes of sitting in front of the bar and wondering whether to go in, she skimmed the control pad of her chair. It wasn’t worth it. Whatever final confrontation she’d hoped for would never happen here. The past was the past.
Continuing on, it took only five minutes to reach the check-in desk at the first-class lounge. She was an expert, now at navigating airports, though it had been a challenge for years. But never had she let her disability stand in the way of what she wanted. Nope, not even one second of insecurity had ever touched her brain since the accident. After flawless practice and unflagging determination, she could do airports by herself.
“Is this your only carry-on, Ms. Goldberg?” Peering down, the desk lady swiped through the travel and identity details.
A jaw-muscle twitched slightly, but this was old hat. “It’s Dr. Goldberg. And yes. Thank you.”
“Oh, my apologies.” A frosty smile and a pointed glance toward the huge clock on the wall. “Would you like us to bring you anything while you wait?”
Too bad. Not enough time before priority gate call to fully exploit this inaugural last experience of flying first-class. “No, thank you, I’ll eat on the plane.”
“Well, here’s your lounge package, anyway.” After taking the bag which was proffered just slightly out of reach, forcing her to lean forward, she scanned for a place to wait in the sparsely filled space.
“Did I hear you say you’re a doctor?” A feathery voice close to the check-in desk interrupted the search. A plump, ash-blonde woman in her late sixties peered curiously, waving with a hand. “What’s your name, dear?”
Ah, a groupie. “Um, yeah. I am. Dr. Lexie Goldberg. I’m assuming you’ve seen me on TV?”
The woman looked confused, and Lexie’s admittedly patronizing smile faltered.
“No, dear. But my late husband was a doctor.”
Oh. She was simultaneously relieved not to have been recognized and disappointed not to be fawned over. Celebrity was a such complicated phenomenon. She nodded shortly. “So was mine.”
“My condolences. What sort of doctor are you, dear?” The woman shifted in her plush chair as though settling in for a good chat. Her interaction with the ableist check-in clerk bred a peevish need to be seen talking to someone instead of sitting by herself, so Lexie wheeled up beside her. The lounge bag, full of game chips and tea bags and New York souvenirs that were useless, plopped on the adjacent seat
“Pediatric neurosurgeon. I graduated from Karolinska in Sweden.”
A sympathetic purse of lips. “That must have been hard for you.” Lexie opened her mouth to deliver her lines about how paraplegics have actually been making great strides in educational equality in the medical field, but didn’t get the chance. “Black folk have a hard enough time as it is, let alone in such a…blond place like Scandinavia.”
For some reason, this made Lexie laugh in astonishment. It had been too long. This woman was too much. “Yep. But I soldiered on. Brain surgeons are hard to find in some parts of the world.”
A red stick of cinnamon gum popped into a pink-lipstick mouth. “Pediatrics, though. Mm, now that’s something else. Do you have children of your own?”
Wryness twisted her lips. “I’m not really mother material. But I got into it because all my siblings died of traumatic brain injuries when they were children.”
Andre. Roberto. Mel. Fiona. If only I’d known how to save them. If only I hadn’t been a child myself.
“Well, becoming a doctor is quite an accomplishment. Your parents must be so proud of you.” Lexie just looked at her, chewing her lip and wondering how to break the news. But the woman must have guessed. The gum-chewing paused. “Did you lose your parents, too?”
“Oh, yes. Someone came to our house and assaulted them when I was a teenager.”
She wasn’t even sure why she was sharing this, other than the fact that the woman was so innocuous and candid, and didn’t seem to want anything more than a little pre-flight conversation. It was disarming, if unexpected.
“Do you have any family left, dear?” The woman applied choral-pink lipstick in two smooth swipes, then smacked her lips. Did the woman ever sit still?
“My husband and his late brothers all had kids, and they’re doing great. I tried my best to be there for them, for as long as I could, but then my husband died, and I had to leave. I had to get my life started.” Lexie paused, playing with the silver cross pendant around her throat, as the woman took in this news. “I don’t know why exactly I’m telling you all of this. Or why you’re asking.”
There was no offense at the comment. “Oh, dearie. I’m just a little nervous about these new-fangled self-flying planes. The cars were bad enough. But what happens if we end up like the characters on that ‘Manifest’ show? Those scientists should just leave things alone. I don’t want to wake up another year in the future, let alone five. Who knows what will be going on then?”
Despite herself, Lexie patted one of the bony, wrinkly hands. “My grandfather died in a plane crash, and I was afraid of flying for a long time, too. I had to medicate myself, one way or another, before each flight.”
“And now you’re fine?”
“Well, eventually, I was forced to take an emergency flight with no sedatives, but I ended up being okay.” Not to mention that fear of flying had been the least of her worries during that fateful trip. Every plane ride after that had been a blissful dream.
“Also, I’ve flown them myself, plenty of times. The pilot is still there for emergencies. You just need to find a way to relax.”
“I would never take medication for something like that. Sometimes music helps, I suppose,” the woman mused, then perked up. “Oh, do you play guitar?”
Stiffening, Lexie shot her a look. How did she know? It was one of the few things that was still private. “What do you mean?”
“I passed you at the shipping counter on my way here. I saw you with a case. I’m assuming you’re sending it ahead to New Zealand?”
A dry, bitter laugh left her throat, but she decided to tell the truth. If she was to truly let go of it, she could no longer treat it like a secret. “That wasn’t mine. I actually stole it ten years ago. But now that I’m moving on, I gave it back to its rightful owner.”
This, surprisingly, seemed to shock the woman more than the thought of wheelchair-bound surgeons, black women in Sweden, or dead children. Apparently, this was on the same level of evil as autonomous passenger jets. “You…stole it?”
Trying to keep from grinning at this incongruity, Lexie nodded gravely. “I’m not a very nice person.”
The woman’s face softened. “Now, hon. I’m sure that’s not true. People like you turn their lives around all the time. Look at you now. You’re a doctor. You can go places all by yourself, without an aide or anything.”
Lexie mulled the assessment. “That’s the thing, though. I am selfish, and stubborn, and I’m done living the way everyone else wants me to. I’ve done terrible, terrible things. Often because I was forced to.” Her grin was genuine, if a little manic. “Now, I’m going to do them because I want to.”
After all her public appearances, she’d grown out of her general reticence, and warmed to her topic, even as her audience of one grew visibly more uncomfortable. Well, too bad. That’s what the lady got for being nosy.
Lexie leaned forward, rubbing her hands as a bubble of insight grew within her. “I’ve only got one life. And let me tell you…wait, what’s your name?”
“Karin. Karin Blanchard. Nice to meet you.”
“Right. So, Karin. Everything has been a nightmare, for years. Decades, even. Pretty much my whole life. And it’s like I’ve seen the light. I’ve sent the guitar back to the boy. That was the last tether, and now I’m free. I sincerely hope that kid can realize that I did my best. But I’m like Elsa. You’ve seen Frozen, right?”
Nose wrinkled, Karin shook her head.
“Oh, come on! it was a phenomenon twenty years ago. Anyway. I’m alone now, but I’ alone and free, and that’s never happened. I’ve been trapped for so long. Ignored. Walked over! No one even knew I existed, for twenty years. But now, it’s like I can breathe easier. For the first time.” Giddy, Lexie gripped Karin’s arm with intensity. “I wish everyone could feel this way. I wish everyone could get it. Do you want to know my secret?”
Now the woman looked suspicious, and her eyes had dropped to Lexie’s chest. “Are you one of those religious airport folk? Are you trying to get me to find Jesus, and whatnot?”
Taken aback, Lexie glanced reflexively down at herself, then fingered the pendant again. The cross was shaped from tiny, silver, thorny vines with a coloured gem inlaid at the centre. It did get a lot of attention, either for its beauty or it’s assumed religious posturing. Although that bothered her, she could never let it far from her heart.
“No, not at all. I believe in science.”
“Now, I’m not trying to offend you or anything. I’m sure it’s a real comfort, in your profession. I can see why you’d want to tell people about it. But for me – ”
“No, really. The only reason I wear it is because it reminds me of my best friend.” Lexie raised a hand, once again cutting Karin off. “Also dead. Everyone is dead, okay?”
Karin hesitated, then nodded gravely, just as the screen next to the tunnel pinged and produced an electronic announcement for priority boarding. Again, disappointment took hold. This was Lexie’s first frank, honest conversation in a long time. Everyone else tiptoed around her. Or tried to manipulate something out of her. But if she could it admit it out loud to this stranger, maybe she could admit it in the privacy of her thoughts. Could she stop hiding now?
Maybe one day, her family would finally understand. Everything she’d ever done, she’d done for them. But now she had to let that go. All she did was hurt them. She wasn’t cut out for the life that they wanted her to live, and that was probably why she hadn’t been able to reveal herself for so long. Now, by living out the rest of her days on a small, disappearing island in the literal opposite corner of the world, she could save them, and herself, and she’d never have to add another name to her death list. They’d outlive her, one way or another. She’d make sure of it.
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~ Romans 15:13