Ten minutes earlier, the crew of GERTI had collectively believed they were about to meet their Maker.
Now, they were standing in the St. Petersburg airport, staring at the hustle and bustle of people scurrying around them, going on with their lives, as if GERTI and her crew hadn’t just nearly fallen from the sky.
“Well, then,” Carolyn said, glancing out the window at the still-smoking remnants of her plane. “Is everyone all right?”
“I’m fine, Mum,” Arthur chirped. “For a minute there it was like a roller coaster, wasn’t it? A giant, falling, smoking roller coaster that happened to be on fire!”
“Yes, dear, but…”
Douglas interrupted her; his eyes were on their pilot. Clearly, Martin was shaken, his blue eyes still wide and darting and his face pale. But the paleness was rapidly taking on a greenish tinge. “Martin?” Douglas said quietly. “ I think we should go find a toilet now.”
“What? I’m fine, I don’t…”
“Just humor me.” Arthur looped his arm loosely around Martin’s shoulders, urging him toward the toilets.
“All right, but why? Did I wet my pants?” Martin’s joke was weak, since he fervently hoped he was, in fact, making a joke.
“Of course not,” Douglas soothed. “You landed the plane admirably. Absolutely spot on. It’s just that…”
Suddenly, Martin moaned, splaying his fingers over his abdomen.
“Ah,” Douglas nodded. “There it is. Come along, Martin.”
“Skip?” Arthur interrupted. “You okay?”
Martin gagged and clamped his hand over his mouth. While Arthur and Carolyn stepped out of the way of impending vomit, Douglas tightened his hold around Martin’s shoulders. Together, they disappeared into the men’s bathroom, Martin stumbling in his haste.
The bathroom door closed with a bang. Arthur pressed his ear against it, wringing his hands and wrinkling his nose.
“What’s wrong with Skip?!” Arthur worried. “Is he sick?”
“Very astute, Arthur,” Carolyn murmured.
“I’d better go in and see if he’s all right…”
She held him back. “Let him finish, Arthur. He’ll be all right.”
“But he’s making terrible noises!”
“Yes, most people do when they’re ill. Just let him be.”
“But…” Arthur blinked back the tears that suddenly burned his eyes. “I don’t know what to do, Mum. The day started out brilliant and now it’s just… all wrong. What… what should I do?”
Tamping down her own shock, her own adrenaline and uncertainty, his mother took hold of her only child’s shoulders, forcing him to meet her gaze. “Now you listen to me, Arthur,” she said. “Pull yourself together and do your job.”
Arthur blinked, and a single tear streaked down his cheek. “My… my job?”
“Yes,” she said, and although her voice was firm, she gently brushed away her son’s tear with her thumb. “Go find something for your captain to drink. He’ll need it when he’s done,” she said. “And some ginger nut biscuits, they’ll settle his stomach. And then he will feel better, because you made him feel better. Do you think you can do that, Arthur? Can you help your captain?”
“Yes, Mum,” he whispered. Armed with newfound purpose, Arthur wiped quickly at his eyes and hurried down the corridor toward the meager assortment of coffee shops and newspaper stands. Carolyn watched him, a slight smile on her lips. “Dear boy,” she muttered. “Dear, silly boy.”
Inside the bathroom, Martin was on his knees, bent over the toilet in misery. Miraculously, Douglas was standing over him, patting his shoulder, murmuring, “There’s a good lad. It’ll be done soon. You’ll be all right.”
It was humiliating. “Leave-“ was all that Martin could manage before his stomach twisted and rose and he lurched forward, being sick yet again. Douglas stayed beside him throughout it all, soothing, reassuring.
Finally, gulping for air, Martin sat back on his heels, wiping his mouth on the back of his hand. “Sorry,” he croaked. “Sorry you had to see that, Douglas.”
“Oh, at my age, there is very little I haven’t already seen,” Douglas assured. He pulled a length of toilet paper from the roll and handed it to Martin.
“But I… I didn’t even know I was going to do… that,” Martin said. “How did you know?”
“Oh, well, let’s just say I know how you’re feeling,” Douglas said. “I had a close call once myself, years ago. Lightning strike, that time. The plane sank like a stone. When I got the plane on the ground, and I had made sure everyone had safely disembarked I went into the nearest toilet and became violently ill.”
“I did. And after that, well…”
Without warning, Martin burst into tears. It caught him completely off-guard; one moment, he was wiping his lips off with the tissue, and the next his mouth downturned and he was hanging his head, sobbing as if he’d lost his best friend.
“Ah, yes,” Douglas said quietly. “That’s what I did, too.” He crouched down, his knees cracking in protest, and rubbed slow circles along Martin’s shoulders as he wept. “It’s all right, Martin,” he murmured.
“I’m sorry,” Martin sobbed. “I don’t know what’s wrong with me. Why am I… acting like…like this…?”
“Because you thought you were going to die,” Douglas said gently. “But far worse, you thought your crew was going to die. And if they had died, it would have been because you weren’t able to save them.”
“I didn’t say it was a rational thought,” Douglas added. “But that’s what was going through your mind, wasn’t it?”
“Yes,” Martin breathed.
“And you know that none of this was your fault, correct?”
“Good,” Douglas nodded. “You did well today, Martin. Really, really well.”
The kind words only made Martin cry harder. As his body shook with his quiet sobs, Douglas murmured, “I know… I know….” and stroked the younger man’s hair until finally- finally- the crisis inside Martin had passed and the captain was able to gather a shuddering, stabilizing breath.
“There you are,” Douglas said, his voice gentle, his hand falling away. “All right now?”
With a muffled groan, Douglas lifted himself to a standing position, reaching for another strip of toilet tissue. Martin staggered to his feet as well, and gratefully took the tissue, then blew his congested nose and stuffed the soggy wad of paper into his pants pocket. Douglas waited silently as Martin walked to the sink and washed his flushed, blotchy face with cold water, and then he reached to straighten Martin’s tie.
“There now,” he said. “Shall we go and inspect the smoldering hulk of metal that, until 15 minutes ago, was our livelihood?”
“Your livelihood,” Martin pointed out, but he smiled just a little. Raising his chin, he headed for the bathroom door.
Arthur was waiting on the other side, holding out a cup of something that looks suspiciously like tar.
“Here you go, Skip!” he bubbled. “A nice, hot cup of coffee!”
Martin took the cup and sipped, then made a face. “It’s cold!”
“A nice… cup of coffee,” Arthur amended.
“A… cup of coffee,” Arthur amended again.
“I’m not sure it is coffee,” Martin groused.
“Cup,” Arthur amended a third time. “How are you feeling?”
How was he feeling? Martin did a quick assessment. His eyes were burning, his nose was stuffed, and his stomach hurt from heaving so much. His knees felt wobbly, and his hands still trembled.
But he was alive. And more importantly, so was his crew.
“I’m feeling fine,” he said. “I’m feeling absolutely fine.”