- Text Size +

Sara headed back toward their gate, fourteen-month-old Henry heavy on her hip, her oversized tote bag roughly the same weight on her opposite shoulder. The airport terminal at O’Hare was mercifully uncrowded in early November, a nice benefit of their Chicago-Cabo tradition. When she got close, she set Henry on his feet and let him walk the last few meters toward Michael and Mike, waiting with their bags.

“I found the ear drops and the cheese crackers, but they didn’t have the right kind of charger,” she said as she reached them, trying to fish the supplies out of her tote as Michael received a toddling Henry. Then she looked up, and her hand froze in her bag.

Oh my God. “Katie?”

Her long-ago nurse stood right there, just one row of chairs down, studying a boarding pass. Her wheeled suitcase stood next to her, her hand resting on the handle. She looked up at the sound of her name.

“Sara?” she said, like she almost couldn’t believe it either. For a brief moment, something kind of clenched in Sara’s gut, and then she realized Katie was smiling, was glad to see her.

“Katie,” she said again with equal disbelief, and then her long-time friend had crossed over to her and they were embracing, Katie’s puffy coat smothering Sara’s face as she hugged her. When she pulled away, the tote slid off her shoulder as she ran a hand through her hair in nervous habit, dislodging her sunglasses from the top of her head. They fell to the floor where Henry reached for them. Michael’s long arm snagged them first. Both Sara and Katie looked over at him at the same time.

“Um, you know Michael of course,” she said, and it was all so weird and uncomfortable she laughed a breathy, hitched laugh that didn’t sound like hers at all.

Michael covered any surprise of his own with his usual grace under fire. “It’s been a very long time,” he said, perhaps as a gentle reminder to Katie that much had happened since she’d seen him last, flirting shamelessly with her boss in Fox River, then plastered on wanted posters. He held out his hand.

Katie shook it with a shaky smile, then seemed to decide a handshake wasn’t quite enough but an embrace wasn’t right either and added her other hand, clapping it on his arm belatedly.

Witnessing this display of awkwardness, Sara felt herself flinch, but at the same time, it made for an oddly satisfying tableau: Katie in her coat, body language admittedly a little guarded, Michael in jeans and a collared shirt, sleeves rolled to his elbows. Mike next to him, killing time on his iPad, Henry grasping his big brother’s leg, trying to climb up into his lap.  It was all so...normal.

“But you’ve never met our kids,” Sara said, scooping Henry back up. She introduced him.

Katie smiled again in disbelief, maybe noting the toddler’s resemblance to Michael, maybe noting his name, maybe not. “Hi, Henry.” She touched his hand, resting on Sara’s arm.

“And Mike,” Sara said, throwing a quick smile over her shoulder at him. Mike now watched the adults, perhaps trying to make sense of the odd vibe around him.

“Nice to meet you,” he said automatically, and Katie shook his hand, too.

“Beautiful family,” she said softly, and Sara could tell she meant it.

“How are you?” Sara asked. “Do you…” she indicated toward the molded plastic chairs around them. “Do you have a minute?” She sat down with Henry.

“I have some time, sure,” Katie said, and sank into the chair next to her.

Michael materialized at Sara’s elbow, and reached for Henry, who was already squirming off her lap. “Let me take him,” he said, lifting him into his arms. “We’ll go check out that play area over there.” He called to Mike to join them. “You have the whole flight to play on that thing.” He touched Katie’s shoulder lightly as they walked away. “It was good to see you again, Katie,” he said softly.

“Yes,” she said, “You, too,” and that same tone was back, the sincere one. Sara remembered why she had always liked this woman so much.

When she turned back to Katie, her friend was shaking her head slightly. “I know it’s been a really long time, but that…” She glanced at Michael’s retreating figure. “That’s weird for me.” She laughed again self-consciously at this confession, her smile a bit dazed.

“I bet,” Sara smiled.

They looked at each other again, kind of at a loss. Then Sara said, “So what have you been doing? Catch me up.”

“Oh you know,” Katie said, as though eight days had passed, not eight years. “I stayed at Fox River for a while, but the new warden and I didn’t really see eye to eye. I ended up leaving after a year.” She paused, not quite meeting Sara’s gaze. “It just wasn’t the same place anymore.”

Sara swallowed, but decided to push forward. “Who replaced me?”

Katie named their long-ago on-call doc, who’d worked nights. Sara hadn’t remembered him being particularly good, and said as much.

“Like I said, things went downhill,” Katie told her.

Sara smiled at her sadly, feeling abruptly melancholy. “What do you do now?”

Katie chuckled and told her, “I work in a pediatrician’s office.”

“Wow, that’s certainly a change.”

“Yeah, I think that’s why they hired me,” Katie laughed. Guess they figured I knew how to handle myself. Those kids step one toe outta line, and I’m ready.”

Sara chuckled. “Staff, too, probably.”

They both laughed, and for a second, it felt exactly right…just like so many times in Sara’s office, the two of them sharing a joke.

Then Katie sobered, and gave her a look Sara recognized from those same office chats. Genuine affection, with a heavy dose of concern. “And you? You’re working?”

“Yes, at our county clinic in Ithaca, working mostly with rehab patients. Medical license in tact,” she added, since Katie would be too polite to ask.

“That suits you,” Katie noted, and it wasn’t the backhanded compliment Sara might have expected from others. “I saw you were in New York state, after reading an article a few years ago about um…”

“Yeah,” Sara said simply. “As you’ll recall, I sure know how to pick ‘em.”

Katie glanced toward where Michael had disappeared with the kids. “Actually, you do,” she said kindly. “I know that now.” She smiled sheepishly. “I think I even knew it then.” Sara acknowledged this with gratitude, but Katie continued in a rush. “And I want you to know, I meant to call or check in on you or something, but then things seemed to get really crazy for you, and then years passed, and…I don’t know. But that’s on me and I want to say I’m sorry.”

Sara reached out and touched Katie’s sleeve. “No apology necessary,” she said earnestly. “I’ve wanted to reach out as well, but I was afraid, I think. I made the choice to follow Michael…not just out of Fox River, but many more times since, and that choice kept taking me farther and farther away from, I don’t know…normal? I guess? And then for many years, it felt hard to come back. Hard to look old friends, even the best friends,” she emphasized, “in the eye.”

Katie nodded, though whether she really understood, Sara didn’t know. “I imagine it almost feels like another life or something.”

“Yes,” Sara agreed. “Sometimes it does feel like that. Like a million years ago.”

A boarding announcement sounded overhead, inviting pre-boarding for their flight to Cabo, and Katie straightened. “Is that you?”

Sara nodded. “Yeah. Kind of a fall tradition for us. We visit Chicago, then get some sun before the New York winter. Though we missed last year, after Henry was born. I couldn’t travel for a while.” She could tell she was kind of babbling, now that it was time to say goodbye.

If discussing babies and vacation plans that included past inmates felt weird to Katie, she didn’t let on. “Well if you come next year, I’d love to see you in the city. All of you,” she added quickly.

“I’d love that,” Sara answered. She hefted her tote back onto her shoulder and scanned the terminal for Michael and the kids. “Where are you headed?”

“Cleveland, to see my mom,” Katie supplied. She smiled sheepishly. “Pretty boring. You always did have the more exciting plans.”

Sara embraced her again, her throat unexpectedly tightening at the feel of her friend in her arms. “I think you’re the one who has the right idea,” she laughed. “I’ve become a fan of boring.”

Katie conceded this point with a shrug and a smile, and then they parted, Katie in search of her gate. Sara caught sight of Mike trotting back up the terminal, a laughing Henry catching a piggy-back ride, Michael’s quick, graceful stride just a few steps behind them. She waited for them by their luggage, her throat still painfully tight.

“Have a good visit?” Michael asked, studying her as she dug out their boarding passes.

“Yeah,” she said. “I really did.”

***

On the plane, Michael buckled Henry into the window seat, gave Mike the middle row, and deposited himself on the other side of him, giving Sara the seat across the aisle from them. It was a calculated move: Henry still only tolerated the car seat if his brother sat next to him, and his seat had to be buckled into the window space.

Mike handed Henry one of his rubber toy cars he liked, which he tossed directly onto the floor, then immediately whined to have back. Mike couldn’t reach it without unbuckling, and Michael sat too far away, leaving the unlucky passenger assigned the seat directly in front of the baby to snag it. She turned to hand it back, a disapproving frown on her face, then caught an eyeful of Henry and all seemed forgiven.

“Hello, there!” she cooed, peering between the seats, suddenly more than willing to help. To Michael, she gushed, “What a beautiful child.”

“Thank you,” Michael answered, smiling. Henry’s ability to make people instantly and unaccountably happy hadn’t diminished since birth. “I hope he won’t be a bother to you.”

“Oh, I’m sure he won’t be,” she informed him. “At any rate, I won’t mind.”

When the woman had turned back around in her seat, Michael looked sidelong at Sara to see if she’d witnessed this. “Henry’s superpower should be useful on a plane,” he observed, his lips twitching, and she smiled.

“And when it wears off, hopefully he’ll nap,” she said.

“Everyone loves Henry,” Mike observed, but without a trace of jealousy in his tone, because he was Mike, and Mike was remarkable. Michael watched him offer his brother the car again, a familiar welling of emotion tightening his chest. Could people physically combust, loving their children so much? Michael often wondered.

He turned to talk to Sara, since Henry seemed momentarily occupied, but doing so constricted his heart yet again.

“What?” she asked, looking at him quizzically.

He just shook his head, suddenly wishing he could march up to the cockpit to inform the pilots they held Michael’s entire world in their hands, just in case they took their heady responsibility for human life too lightly. “Nothing,” he told her. He watched her stare at her open novel without reading for a moment, then added, “That was quite the coincidence, seeing Katie.”

She released a shaky breath. “Yeah.” Something bothered her, though. He could tell. “I should have reached out to her a long time ago,” she said. “But she just felt impossibly far away, you know? Like we’d been on the same path for years, then I’d just switched to a different set of tracks and split off, just like that.”

This was Michael’s fault. He knew better than to say so aloud; she’d defend the principle of free will. He knew how strongly she felt about taking full credit/responsibility/blame for that unlocked infirmary door. But sometimes, he equated the way he’d diverted her life to a kidnapping: one moment, she’d had it all, and the next, she’d been on the run, in love with a fugitive, hunted by hitmen and the Company. He knew he had to live with the fact that he’d done that to her, and that he’d do it again, as long as it meant having her, having this family. Because vicious circles were futile, and neither of them would change a thing if they could anyway, he told her simply, “I’m glad you found yourselves back in sync again.”

The plane took off, and over the low rumble of the engine, Michael smiled at the sound of Henry’s chortle at the feel of the vibrations under his seat. As they lifted up above the clouds, Mike turned to him, an eager hand on his sleeve. “When we get there, will we have time to go to the beach today? I want to show Henry.”

Michael bent to kiss the top of his son’s head, smiling anew at his earnest expression. Even more than Henry, this child was, to Michael, the embodiment of everything good and right about Sara and himself. Henry might delight and endear, but Mike quietly healed them, Michael thought. Often, he suspected this kid was smarter and stronger and braver than either of them. In fact, he felt sure of it.

“Dad?” he prodded. “Can we?”

“Plenty of time for the beach tomorrow,” Michael managed, letting his lips linger a moment on Mike’s hair. “You and me, we’ll build Henry a sand castle.” Tonight, they’d have time only to get to their bungalow and drop their bags. He’d tuck his children into beds, lock the door, and curl up next to his wife, letting a Baja breeze wash over them.

He couldn’t wait.