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Sunday, July 10, 2011

Survivors - No. 124

Doug jerked up the parking brake, clicked on the hazard lights, and bolted from the driver's seat.  Horns blared around him from the three lanes of idling cars crowding the curb.  Slamming his car door closed, Doug jogged between dual blinkers and spewing mufflers, and then dashed into the terminal.

A sea of worried faces cluttered the ticket area.  Shouts and conversations echoed against the arching glass and steel.  Spotting a woman in a police uniform, Doug pushed forward.

"Excuse me," he said, breathless, "I'm looking for information on Flight 43."

"We're still compiling the list of known casualties," said the officer, as if speaking on replay.  "If you want to get into line-."

"I want to know if my family's all right."

"What's your name, sir?"

"Marshall, Doug Marshall.  My wife's Sydney, my son’s Jake."

"Mr. Marshall, if you come with me, we'll get you into line-."

"I don't want to get into line,” said Doug, scowling in the face of the officer’s double-barreled glare.

"If you get into line, Mr. Marshall, they'll check your ID and allow you inside where they're gathering relations."

"Inside?”  Rising on his tiptoes, Doug peered over the mob and periodic reporters.  "Okay.  Where do I go?"

"Head down the perimeter," said the officer, pointing toward the other end of the terminal. "There will be signs for the security check-in station."

Doug followed her finger’s trajectory at a jagged sprint, starting and stopping as the assembled masses drifted in his way, heedless of anyone else.  Mumbling curses, he kept up the pace until he ran into the first sign and roped-off corridor.

His sneakers squeaked as he joined the end of a snaking line.  Directly in front of him stood a frumpy woman clutching her driver's license, and hugging her purse against a rumbled sweatshirt.

"You're here for Flight 43?" asked Doug.

The woman swiveled her gaze from those before them, her eyes near the point of tearing.  Biting her lip, she nodded.  "My sister, Fran...."

Doug motioned her on as the line trundled forward, bringing them closer to a wall of tinted glass.  "Have you heard anything?"

"No," said Fran’s sister, her voice warbling.  She drew a deep breath and steadied.  "Just that they have some folks on the other side receiving treatment, the others...."  Hunching her shoulders, she trailed into sniffles.  "I’m sorry."

"No, I understand."  Doug fished out his wallet, bent on his license, but plucked their family portrait out instead.  He held out the photograph, his hand shaking.  "My wife and son."

She touched the image, and then drew her hand to her mouth.  "This is just terrible."


Fran’s sister jumped as the officer at the security desk beckoned.  Skittering forward, she held her ID out like a ticket.  The officer adjusted his glasses, and began asking questions in a hushed tone.

Standing between the pylons, Doug kept his photo out as he withdrew his license.  He pressed the plastic and image against his wallet, and bounced in place.

"What are they doing up there?" asked the gruff man behind him.

Doug glanced over his shoulder, and met the red-faced man's glower.  "Asking questions, I guess."

"I'm the one with questions, damn it."  The man grumbled and the young woman next to him wilted into herself like a parched fern.

Doug offered an empathetic smile, and swiveled back to the officer.  A woman wearing a Red Cross vest exited the glass door behind the desk, and led Fran's sister through to the other side.

Rubbing at his temple with one hand, the officer waved with the other.  “Next!”

Doug shot forward, ID ready.

"Name?" asked the officer.

"Doug Marshall."

"Who are you here for?"

The officer stiffened as Doug offered the picture.  "My wife Sydney and son Jake."

Ripping his gaze from the image, the officer started flipping into pages of printed names attached to his clipboard.  He passed through the first half dozen, and then ran his finger down the column.

"Is that...?"  Doug gulped, unable to finish his question.

"Just the passenger list," said the officer.  He drew a line through two rows with a neon-yellow highlighter, the scrape setting Doug's teeth on edge.  Letting the pages flutter down, he looked up and Doug met his gaze.  "How is it that you're here?"

"When I heard what happened, I started driving."  Doug shrugged.  "It's only an hour and a half.  I couldn't just sit at home, waiting for a phone call."

The officer nodded, and then spoke into the walkie-talkie attached to his shoulder.  "One, over."

"Copy," said a static reply.

"Just one moment," said the officer, handing Doug back his license.  "Someone's going to escort you inside."

"Thanks," said Doug.  He transferred his stare from the officer to the glass door, willing it to open.  His pulse rattled in his ears, drowning the crowd noise beneath his heartbeat.

The door cracked, and a needle-thin man wearing another Red Cross vest appeared on the threshold.  Holding the door open, he gave a grim smile.  "This way, sir."

Doug froze, his feet suddenly as attached to the floor as they’d had been to the gas pedal.

"Sir?" said the officer.

The Red Cross attendant padded up, and took Doug's arm. The pressure jolted him from his stupor.

"I'm sorry," said Doug, allowing the other man guide him forward.

"Not a problem," said the attendant, keeping hold and opening the door for them.  "My name's Paul."


"About time," said the gruff man who'd been behind him in line.

Doug didn't bother offering another expression of sympathy.  Clutching his wallet, he followed Paul.  His heart leapt into his throat as they traversed a narrow hallway.  The smell of antiseptic and adhesive dominated the air, nearly obscuring the scent of char and gasoline.

"Where are we going?" asked Doug, his voice scraping against his throat as if it had claws.

"The medical team has a triage unit running.  The survivors who've received care are recuperating there until we can move everyone to the nearby hospitals."

Doug bobbed his head, and lifted his chin. Forcing down a swallow, he kept his knees from liquefying.

"Who are you looking for, Doug?"

"My wife and son," said Doug.  He offered the picture and ID again, his fingers quivering, palm slick.  "Have you seen them?"

"I better not say."  Paul handed them back.  "I don't want to pass along anything that's not fact."

"Right," said Doug.  He bowed his head, watching his sneakers as they walked in silence.

The beeps of equipment, orders for treatment, and jubilant cries grew louder until they reached a set of opened doors.  Paul halted them at a wrinkled man with another clipboard, who looked up beneath bushy eyebrows.

"Marshall, woman and young boy," said Paul.

Doug didn't bother staring at the pages being flipped this time.  He peered into the terminal gates, now filled with cots and scurrying staff instead of passengers waiting to board.  Vest denoted the Red Cross, white coats the medical personnel, while frayed and ragged clothes revealed the family members admitted before him and the survivors they’d come to find.

"I think we've got one Marshall," said the clipboard man.  "Just let me check-."


Doug swiveled toward the exclamation, and locked onto Jake jumping up on a cot.  He waved one scratched-up hand, his other, bandaged against his torso, matched the gauze half-taped around his head.  One woman steadied Jake as he nearly tumbled, while another stood beside his bed, holding more medical tape and gauze in rubber-gloved hands.

Surging between Paul and the clipboard man, Doug tore down the aisles.  He scooped Jake up, whose arm wrapped around his neck like a noose.  The rest of the room vanished as he clutched Jake's small body against him.  Sounds muted, and Doug’s senses died to anything other than Jake’s rapid heartbeat and tight clasp.  Pulling out of the embrace, Doug planted a kiss on the bare patch of Jake's forehead before catching his son's watery eyes.

“It’s all right now,” said Doug, cooing like when Jake woke from a nightmare.  "Do you know where your mom is?"

Jake's lower lip started to wobble, and he shrank into Doug's shoulder.

"Doug," said Paul.

Doug closed his eyes, and pressed his cheek against Jake’s curly black hair, the locks he’d gotten from Sydney.  "Yes?"

"We have some information about your wife."

Slinging Jake in his lap, Doug sat on the edge of the cot.  Jake squirreled close, as if to burrow through Doug’s jacket.  Looking up, Doug stared at Paul, standing with the clipboard man.  Both loomed like trees about to fall and Doug braced himself for impact.

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