Read Blue Skies Online

Authors: Robyn Carr

Blue Skies (7 page)

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“Not all airlines are losing money, which tells me that the Aries management should take a look at profitable companies and learn from them.”

“Bob,
two
airlines didn't lose money. One is a low-fare carrier that has a legislative monopoly out of Texas, and the other is a start-up that hasn't made a single airplane lease payment yet.”

He sighed heavily. “Drastic measures for drastic times.”

No matter how many times she heard this rhetoric, Nikki couldn't believe it. “Look, I'm not saying management is right or the union is right, but there is a basic tenet of logic that it just doesn't make sense to draw a line in the sand now, when the entire industry is struggling. Why not just hunker down and wait until there are signs of a recovery, and then turn the screws? That's when getting tough has a chance of actually paying off. A strike now could shut the company down.”

“Exactly!” he said, as though finally getting through to her. “With that kind of threat, you think the company would let us stay out long?”

“Oh, man. You could end up in the unemployment line.”

He smiled at her, turned and started walking again. “I've already got my résumé out there floating around. There are lots of possibilities.”

“That's just it, Bob, there
aren't,
” she said to his back. “Everyone is still trying to get their furloughed
employees back. Some airlines are laying off even more.”

He turned and spoke while taking a few steps backward. “I'm not worried. I have a ton of hours and lots of experience. I think I'm pretty competitive.”

Nikki just stared at him in wonder. “Not if they see you land.”

Four

W
hen Nikki got to Dixie's, she walked in on an impressive pity party. Carlisle and Dixie were drinking mai tais with black rum floating on top, eating cheesecake and sorting through a big pile of men's and women's clothing that was heaped on the sofa.

“Oh, you are going to hate yourselves in the morning,” she predicted.

“Want one, Nick? We can call you a cab….”

“How about a small glass of wine and an explanation.”

Both were served up quickly. Dixie had whacked Branch in the head with the hotel door, and even though she'd done so unintentionally, she hadn't made any attempt to help him. She'd heard him moan and stumble away, and at least briefly hoped he was dead.

Nikki sank onto a kitchen stool and leaned her head on her hand, listening.

“I think I might've had fifty boyfriends,” Dixie said. “Or a hundred. Do ya'll know I have eleven tennis bracelets? Plus a good many necklaces, earrings and miscellaneous jewelry. And look at this here,” she said, going to the huge mound of clothes on the sofa. She lifted a fistful of sheer and lacy lingerie. Red, black, silver, gold, white, yellow—
leopard?
“Negligees, teddies and peekaboos—some I've fetched for myself, some
given to me. All so that I can look sexy for whichever guy I pinned my hopes on.”

“What are you going to do with all that stuff?”

“Putting it out on the curb for giveaway. I'm getting Bali bras and Jockey For Her briefs from now on, and I'm going to start sleeping in a T-shirt like the rest of the female human race. And the next guy who gives me a teddy is going to be strangled with it.”

Nikki took a sip of her wine. Not only had she never been given a teddy, she had never bought one for herself. She'd worn cotton undies for ten years at least. And if she was honest, she didn't really need a bra.

“The homeless are going to look
très chic,
” Carlisle said, slurring just slightly.

“I've heard you swear off men before…” Nikki began.

“Oh, no, this time I'm through. I hate all men.”

“That is
s-o-o-o
unkind,” Carlisle whined.

“Not all men, precious,” she said. “I still love all gay men. Well, not all,” she amended.

“You're both shit-faced,” Nikki told them.

“It might seem so to you, Nicole,” Carlisle said, “but we have been so badly bruised by love.”

She looked at him seriously for a moment before she burst into laughter, and with the slightest lisp, said, “Carlisle, you get
s-o-o-o
gay when you're drunk.”

“Thanks, Butch,” he shot back, taking another pull on his mai tai.

“So what's your story?” she asked. “What's driven you to drink? And are you giving up your sexy underwear, too?”

“It's just Robert, the bastard. He's chronically unfaithful and nasty to me. And I don't
wear
underwear.” Then he began to sing “Alone Again, Naturally.” By
the end of the first stanza they were on the floor in uncontrollable laughter.

Nikki indulged herself with another half glass of wine, just because her friends were so hysterically funny in their misery. “As much as I'd love to stay until you two get sick, I really do have to go,” she said at last. “I have two kids, a cranky father and a dead ex-husband to tend to.” But she made a pass by the sofa full of clothes. The men's had belonged to Branch Darnell, but the sexy girlie stuff was all Dixie's. She lifted a black shortie nightie that was totally transparent. “I have never owned anything like this,” she said mournfully.

“It's just as well, sugar,” Dixie assured her. “That stuff'll get you into trouble.”

Nikki held the nightie up to her, over her pilot shirt, of course. “Do you know what I'd give to look good in one of these things? The hell with men, I'd just wear it on Saturday nights and stare at myself in the mirror.” She waved it toward Dixie. “At least you can console yourself that you're gorgeous.”

“I'd rather have two kids,” Dixie said.

That gave Nikki pause. She thought for a moment. “There's absolutely no question that I'd ever give them up, not at the point of a gun, but I would like to have sex again. At least once before I die.”

“Well, then,” Carlisle said, “get down to the Salvation Army first thing Monday morning and you'll find all that striking
boudoir
gear on sale.”

 

Carlisle had a headache the size of Texas when the ringing of the phone in the next room woke him. Dixie was already up, loading all the clothes into large yellow bags for the Salvation Army. She had turned some developmental corner. Five years ago, even one year ago,
she'd have laundered everything and had her ex-lover come for it. There might have even been a tearful roll in the hay for old time's sake. No more, she said. Meet the new Dixie.

Well, Carlisle thought, I am the same old me—starving for affection. And sometimes, he thought, needing to be abused. Why else would he put up with so much? What had Robert ever done for him but make him miserable? Robert wasn't the least self-conscious about cheating; in fact, he became more open about it all the time.

The dark, depressing cloud that hung in the air at Dixie's town house was caused by the absence of phone calls. Branch hadn't phoned to beg forgiveness and profess his undying love, and Robert had certainly not bothered them. Neither Carlisle nor Dixie had dared venture around the corner to see if the BMW was back at the curb.

“You'd think that sorry bastard of a pilot would call,” Dixie had said.

“You put him in the hospital,” Carlisle reminder her. “It might have pissed him off. But Roberto…”

“Is very clever. He waits until he knows you'll be miserably lonely, then he calls, and you're the big dope who gives him one more chance. It's happened…what? Twenty or thirty times? At least I always move on to a new man.” She cleared her throat. “Or I used to. I'm not gonna do that anymore. No more men! I just can't figure out what I'm going to do about sex. I'm awful fond of sex.”

But this time it was neither Branch nor Robert on the phone. It was Nikki, offering an opportunity to keep them from just licking their wounds and medicating their hangovers. She asked if they were up to helping her go
through Drake's clothes and other personal items. “I dread it,” she told them. “School's going to be out soon and I have to get this behind us. I could use the company.”

“You sure we won't just be in the way?” Dixie asked. “It's a mighty emotional thing for kids.”

“I told the kids to think about what they'd like to keep—sentimental things, like watches and cuff links and stuff. The rest, they understand, is going to go to people who can use it. I'm going to get as much of it cleared out as possible while they're at school.”

“Of course we'll help you, sugar,” Dixie said. “The three of us. Just like old times. We'll meet you over there in an hour.” When she hung up, she said to Carlisle, “She needs us more than we need to feel sorry for ourselves. Now, are you going to stay here with me for a while?”

“If you're sure it's okay…”

“It's not only okay, if you go back home I'll be very disappointed in you.”

So Carlisle went around the corner to his town house to pack a bag while Robert was at work. He looked around the home they'd shared these past three years. You'd think Robert would have left a note or something, but he hadn't even picked up his dirty clothes or wiped out the sink. He left the scut work for Carlisle…and Carlisle always did it.

He drove his car around the corner to store in Dixie's garage, and when he pulled into her drive, she was putting the bags full of clothes out on the curb for pickup. This had been the fourth time in the past year that Carlisle had packed a bag to leave Robert. In his heart he hoped he would be strong enough and smart enough not to go back this time.

Of course, he had a long history of running away. Once he got to college, he had gone home to Anoka, Minnesota, as seldom as possible. He had no siblings, and his straitlaced religious parents were not just openly disapproving of gays, they were downright hostile. Carlisle was afraid they'd pick up on clues that would have been obvious years before to anyone else.

But they hadn't. Carlisle was a twenty-six-year-old fifth-grade teacher when he finally told them the truth, and they acted exactly as he had feared—stunned and angry. “But you went to the prom!” was his mother's first shocked and disbelieving cry. Mothers who were worried that their sons were gay always hung on to that prom date as confirmation that their worst fears were unfounded.

Then they told him not to discuss that filth around them again until he had examined all his options. Options? Like rehabilitation. There was a church in Minneapolis that was having great success helping gays return to a straight life.

Carlisle often wondered how you could “return” to a straight life. When had he ever been straight? He had no memory of it.

He seemed to be able to have a superficial, somewhat loving relationship with his mother, Ethel, as long as they never broached the subject of homosexuality. But this was hard for Ethel, who always wanted to know if he was
still
gay.

His father, on the other hand, was barely civil. It was with great sadness that Carlisle had left his teaching job and the Midwest ten years ago to fly for Aries, but he got the distinct impression that his parents were relieved to have him so far away. He visited rarely, and when he did, his father had nothing to say to him. There was no
way he would ever introduce anyone in his family to a partner. Carlisle knew he was referred to as the Gay Cousin, and while a couple of his aunts sent Christmas cards and occasional notes, no one bothered to keep him posted on family events, probably fearful he might attend.

But then came the real deal breaker, the events of 9/11. Although there had not been an Aries jet involved, airline employees often traveled on other airlines using nonrevenue passes—a professional courtesy. His parents couldn't know for certain that he wasn't on one of the hijacked planes, whereas Carlisle had talked to his mother the previous month and knew they had no travel plans and were tucked safely away in Anoka.

As it happened, Carlisle had been in New York on a layover and was stranded by the grounding of all aircraft. He had watched the plume of smoke that grayed the city and wept his heart out at what was happening to the world. Dixie had been in D.C. and Nikki in Boston, and it had taken a couple of days for their cell phones to work properly so they could be certain of one another's safety.

When his parents saw those huge planes smash into the towers, killing thousands of people, did they not think, “Where is Carlisle? Could he have been on one of those planes? Is he okay?”

They had never called. No one had called. Not his parents, aunts or cousins.

That's when he realized they weren't just annoyed with him for being gay. They simply didn't care about him at all.

Because of that, whenever he and his two best friends groused about their loneliness, Carlisle felt he was the most alone of all.

 

Ever since Nikki had left the house she'd lived in as Drake's wife, she had felt a little strange driving up to it. The feeling was even more pronounced now that he was dead and she was a guest in this house that belonged to the bank.

Buck had convinced the children to stay at his house while Nikki was away on her flight, and he had driven them to and from school. It was just too much to expect him to move into Drake's house; Buck used to seethe each time he had to pick up the kids there. But today after school they would return to this house that had been their home.

Dixie and Carlisle were parked at the curb, waiting for her. They had several hours left before the kids would be home from school.

“I really don't know what to do with this house,” Nikki said to her friends as they met on the driveway. “There's not a dime of equity in it and the kids really like the neighborhood and schools, so it makes sense to just live here with them. But for me…?”

“Too many bad memories?” Carlisle asked.

“More than I can count. Plus, thanks to Drake's poor planning, the mortgage payment is horrendous.”

“They say don't make any big changes right after a death,” Dixie advised.

“If
they
had been needled and ridiculed by Drake for a dozen or so years,
they
might not have said that.”

“I know, sugar, but if you're patient, just hang around here a little while, and maybe somethin' will turn up nearby. It might be easier for the kids if you didn't have to change neighborhoods, at least.”

Since Drake's death, the master bedroom had been closed off. Now she had to go in there and sort out the
remains of his life. She left the clothes to Dixie and Carlisle, while she bit the bullet and opened up his desk, filing cabinets, strongbox and safe. Although she had nurtured the secret hope that she would find some hidden stash that would take care of educations, at least, so far there was nothing. What she did find was debt, and evidence of stock trading. The market hadn't been good to Drake, and he'd borrowed against his 401K and house. He bought on the margin, sold short and lost his shirt.

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