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Short Story

Twice In A Lifetime (copyright, 2000) by Donna Conger

Lorraine clutched her six month old baby, grateful that she hadn't cried once during the entire trip.

Lorraine wanted everything in her life to go smoothly. She'd wanted that since the moment she got the news that her husband Greg, had been shot. He had not survived.

There were so many details to take care of. Somebody always needed to know what needed to be done. It started with the funeral and it had not slowed down since. There were so many things that could go wrong. The circumstances surrounding Greg's death personified that ugly reality; he'd been ticketing a speeding motorist in downtown Pasadena, and another driver with a chip on his shoulder decided to punish all policemen by shooting an innocent man.

Yes, so many more things could go wrong. As the plane's engines droned in her ears, she crossed her fingers for an easy start to their new lives.

Her first major decision was to move. She could not stay in the same city where her soul mate had been murdered in cold blood. She had to distance herself and her children from a place she would always link to senselessness.

"Would you like a mint?"

The question wasn't directed at her, but to her eleven year old son. The gentleman sitting at the window waited, watching Josh draw a picture.

Lorraine felt the knot begin to form in her stomach. Would he understand? Lorraine clutched the baby tighter.

She could see Josh's eyes glaze slightly as he assimilated the question. This one's easy, she thought. She was just about to jump in when Josh answered.

"No thanks." He shook his head to seal the answer.

Lorraine felt relieved. She was glad it was a short flight. That way she wouldn't have to explain.

They'd made huge strides in his speech and comprehension. She was only mildly relieved to find out that he was mildly autistic because there was still so much work ahead. Some people understood right away. Others did not. He wasn't mentally retarded. The specialist told her that something in his brain short circuited, probably rather after he was born. Together with educators, she would have to teach him how to talk. The wires would have to be reconnected manually.

"Very creative," he said, pointing at Josh's picture.

Lorraine's eyes were wide. "I think so too."

"I don't notice too many kids drawing any more. Pretty much every kid on the plane plays video games. It's nice that you're encouraging him to do something more."

"I try," she replied.

Lorraine felt a sigh build inside her. Greg talked like that. Greg cared about things like that. She'd never known someone as sensitive as Greg. It was nice to have a conversation with a decent person. She had begun to believe, less than two months after Greg's death, that there were no more pure and good people left on the earth.

He looked at Josh. "What's your name?"

"Joshua Austinlee Davis," he rattled off without a moment's hesitation.

"That's quite a name."

Josh got that distant look. "Uh huh," he said without looking up.

The stranger looked up at Lorraine. She didn't know how to explain that it wasn't that he didn't care; it was just that he didn't know how to care.

"He's named after a few members of my family," she offered.

"I see."

He wore a deep blue suit and tie. She spied a briefcase under his seat. She wondered if he had children. If he wasn't a father, he was being very polite. Most businessmen were easily annoyed at children on a plane.

"Thanks for being so nice," she blurted out after a pause in the conversation became too long. "We appreciate it."

She wanted to ask if he was bothering her. Instead, she swung her eyes to the cup, snatched it up, and took a sip.

"How's it taste?" the stranger asked.

She was surprised at the question, both that he had asked it and because he continued making conversation.

"Sweet. With a hint of strawberry."

Josh picked up the cup and held it to the stranger's face. "Have some," he insisted.

The stranger looked first at the boy then at Lorraine with an apologetic face. "I can't. I'm sorry. I'm allergic to strawberries."

"Then I make another one," Josh announced in his not-always-perfect speech.

"Oh no, Josh, honey," Lorraine jumped in immediately, the red rising from her neck to her face quick as mercury. "Don't bother the nice man. He might not want--"

"No, I'd like to try another one of Josh's experiments," he said.

Laura stirred in her arms. Lorraine began to rub circles on her back. "Really? You don't mind?"

Josh was already pressing the flight attendant button above his head, a huge smile creasing his cherubic features. The blush had consumed Lorraine's face this time.

He appeared to be a normal eleven year old. But whenever they were in social situations, there was the moment in which he would not understand and she had to intercept.

A flight attendant brought soda and pretzels. Lorraine urged him to thank the attendant. Once that was done, she leaned over his drawing. "Is that a picture of a shower?"

Lorraine turned to Josh, waiting. When he didn't answer, she interpreted for him. "The lady wants to know what you're making, Josh."

He understood, laughing as he explained. "It's from Seinfeld, when Kramer tried to take a shower and it knocked him out."

The flight attendant laughed. "Oh I love Seinfeld. That's a great show."

Josh nodded. Again Lorraine felt relief. She wanted him to blend in, not for her but for Josh.

She plugged in the headset, juggling Laura as she tuned into a jazz station. She leaned back just as Josh offered the gentleman on his left three tiny pretzels.

Lorraine watched as he politely refused. Josh shrugged and popped the pretzels into his mouth.

She dozed, awakened when she heard Josh talking to himself. She immediately sat up. "What's so funny, hon?"

He was hunched forward, his hands covering the plastic cup filled with 7-Up. He chuckled again, then leaned back, removing his hands. Lorraine started to laugh too. He'd dropped a grape Skittle into the soda. It was fizzing madly as it turned the drink into   lavender.

"Good one," she said.

"I agree." Josh's seatmate was leaning forward, studying the boy's project.

"It's for the man," Josh said flatly.

The stranger looked up at Lorraine with an admiring smile. Her broad smile melted into a cordial grin as she looked into the softest brown eyes she'd ever seen. They were almost as round and huge as Josh's eyes. She and Greg never knew where they came from. Hers were a pale blue. Greg's were hazel. And the baby, Laura, sported bright blue eyes. Neither set of grandparents had even remotely brown eyes.

"This is for me? Nice." He picked up the cup and then looked at Lorraine. "Who would have thought that something so simple could be so funny?"

Without elaborating on the reason for Josh's unsullied behavior, she replied, "That pretty much summarizes my son."

He downed the glass of Skittle flavored soda with a grin. "Delicious, Josh. Your mother is very proud of you, isn't she?"

Josh didn't answer.

"I am," Lorraine replied.

Josh stared at the empty glass. "Another one?"

"Sure."

Josh pushed the button for the flight attendant.

He chuckled. "These flights are so boring. Josh is the most interesting thing to come along for a long time. By the way, I'm Brad Waters."

"Lorraine. Lorraine Davis." She exploded into nervous laughter. "Oh, you already know my last name, don't you?"

"Yes, I do."

They were still chuckling when the flight attendant arrived. Josh started to laugh loudly. Lorraine was about to shush him when she noticed Brad suppressing a grin. She turned. The flight attendant's badge read T. Rex.

"That's from Jurassic Park," he nearly shouted. He shouted when he was very happy. Lorraine forced herself not to try to quiet him. "What your name?"

She glanced down knowingly. "Oh, yes. It's Tonya. There's another attendant on this flight named Tanya. We wear badges so people don't get confused." She was still smiling. "What can I get you?"

"I would like a 7-Up," Josh announced, once again loudly. Lorraine gave him a prompting look. Josh pursed his lips, forming the word. "Please."

The attendant smiled.

"Ask the nice man what flavor he likes," Lorraine said softly.

She hoped he wouldn't hear. But he did. "I love grape. Do you have another one in that bag?"

Josh dug through the bright red bag with gusto. She looked down when she heard a soft coo. Laura was staring into her mother's eyes, her own eyes twinkling.

"Well, hello. Good nap, sweetie?" She reached for a bottle.

"Let me," Josh said, already reaching toward the diaper bag.

"How old?" Brad asked.

"Six months." She popped the bottle into Laura's eager mouth.

"You're brave, traveling with children," he offered kindly.

She wanted to tell him that he didn't have any other choice.

"My dad is dead," Josh said, handing him a grape Skittle.

Brad's eyes swung to Lorraine's. She swallowed, unable to come up with an addendum to the statement.

"I'm sorry," he said, sounding sincere. He dropped the Skittle into the soda.

"A man killed him," Josh added. "We are moving away from that bad place to a good place."

Brad nodded understanding. His voice was still business-like, but not cold. "I'm sorry Josh. Will you have teachers in your new place to help you? You're doing well."

"I miss my teacher, Patty. She had a red car. I couldn't drive it, but I could sit in it."

"I'm sure you will get a great teacher."

Josh nodded absently. "Where do you live?"

"I live in Denver."

"Hey," he shouted. "We go to Denver too. You have a house? We don't have a house anymore. We sold it to have money."

"Yes, I have a house."

"You have children?"

Lorraine had been listening with amazement, both at how easily Josh opened up to him and how much the stranger understood about her son. But now this was too much, she felt, intending to stop Josh because he could not stop himself. She put her hand on Josh's arm.

Brad looked up. "It's okay. I don't mind."

Josh hadn't missed a beat. "Why not?"

"I just never got around to having any."

"My sister is six months old. Soon she will be seven. Mom isn't going to have any more children because my dad is dead. That bad man killed him."

Brad's nod was sympathetic. But Lorraine's emotions were stirring at maximum. "He's autistic. He's learning, but sometimes, well, we're working on social skills--"

"Really, it's okay. I think you're more bothered than I am." He shifted to pull something out of his pocket. He missed her nod.

"Oh, look at all that money," Josh said, eyeing the wallet thick with bills. Brad just laughed. Lorraine was mortified. Brad handed Josh a business card.

"Listen, Josh, once you get settled in, you can call me any time you want, okay?"

Josh studied the card then pocketed it. His smile was proud. "I just learned how to use the phone."

"But he doesn't handle answering machines very well," Lorraine offered meekly.

"I'm not home a lot due to business, but I'm sure he'll get the hang of it. He's a sharp guy."

Few people had ever met Josh then concluded that he was bright. His handicap outshone everything else about him unless you were willing to look closer.

She laid the baby on her shoulder and began rubbing her back. "Thank you, Mr. Waters. That's very generous of you."

"I'm Brad, remember?"

"And I'm Lorraine."

"I remember."

"I'm Joshua Austinlee Davis," Josh piped in loudly.

Laura belched, then cooed, her stomach full and relaxed. Lorraine and Brad's eyes met once again before they both burst into harmonious laughter.

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