by Roberta Simpson Brown


       Johnny woke with a start as the captain's voice came through the speakers.

       "Good morning, ladies and gentlemen. This is Captain Riggins speaking. We are now beginning our final approach to Louisville International Airport. I must ask you to fasten your seatbelts and remain seated until we are on the ground. We may experience a little turbulence during our descent with this front that's moved in, but I assure there is nothing to worry about."

       "Oh, man!" Johnny said to himself. "Little turbulence and no worries would be a welcome change!" He'd had more than his share of both lately.

       He glanced at the vacant seat beside him. He knew Marie was somewhere on the plane, but he wouldn't let himself think of her right now. Marie Martin had filled all of his waking moments for months, but he was going to have to come to terms with her absence now. He'd promised to come with her to her home in Kentucky, and here he was. He'd kept his word. But to get through this, he'd have to remember that she belonged here and he belonged in LA.  Separation was sad, but at least she hadn't just dumped him.

       Touchdown was smooth. He found Marie, and Mr. Bernard met them and drove them to Marie's family just like Marie had arranged weeks ago. Johnny was relieved that she had handled all the travel details in advance. He knew nothing about rural Kentucky, and he knew he'd feel out of place.

       He had marveled at the way Marie had fit in with everything in LA. He'd seen her first at Rampart and overheard Dix complimenting her work. Brains and beauty! She was too good to be true. She'd never go for him. But Dix had introduced them, and Marie had liked him as much as he liked her. A month passed and then another and another.

       "Johnny," Roy said one day as they arrived at work together, "do you realize you've been dating the same girl for three months?"

       "Yeah," grinned Johnny, "I can't believe it myself."

       "Is this serious?" asked Roy.

       "You may be surprised!" said Johnny "But don't say anything to anyone just yet. You know my luck with women!"

       "Right!" Roy nodded. "But go easy. Marie looked tired today."

       Johnny hadn't wanted to admit it to himself, but he had noticed, too.

       "No wonder," he said to Roy. "She works long shifts and then goes out with me every night." Inside he felt it was more than that.

       Johnny began to worry and watch her. She continued to be tired all the time. Then she began to fall asleep very early. She grew pale and dark circles appeared under her eyes.

       "Hon, maybe you should let Dr. Brackett take a look at you," Johnny suggested.

       "Maybe I should," she agreed. "I'll do it tomorrow."

       "Good!" said Johnny. "It's my day off. I'll go with you."

       Next day the wait was a long one. Johnny flipped through every magazine in the waiting room before he heard Dix call his name.

       "Johnny, would you come back to Dr. Brackett's office, please?"

       Something in her voice triggered a deep foreboding. Something awful was wrong. He was sure of it. When he saw Marie's eyes, red from crying, Johnny's worst fears were confirmed.

       Cancer! An ugly, sinister, deadly word! Dr. Brackett surrounded it with words of hope, but Marie and Johnny didn't hear at first. No! It couldn't be happening! It was unthinkable! Johnny held Marie and they both cried. It was cruel and unfair, but what could they do?

       "Fight it," Dr. Brackett was saying. And Johnny knew he was right. In that moment, Johnny left his carefree youth behind him forever.

       They fought every step of the way together. There was the chemo, the nausea, weight loss, hair loss, and the wig she had fashioned from her own long, brown hair. There were radiation treatments that left her too weak to stand, but finally it was over.

       "I want to go home, Johnny," she'd said. "Please take me to Kentucky."

       And now here they were in front of the Martin's farmhouse. Marie's family swarmed around them. Neighbors were there, too.

       "You must be starved, Johnny," said Marie's mother, taking his arm. "There's plenty of food inside."

       They ate. They laughed. They cried. They exchanged stories. Johnny went with the family to the little church down the road. The service ended and it was time to say good-bye and catch his flight back home.

       Johnny took Marie's face in his hands. He bent down and kissed her brow, her cheeks, her lips. Then he let go. With tears blinding his way, he stumbled to Mr. Bernard's car for the drive back to the airport. He did not look back. He knew he must never do that.

       The car sped through the darkening countryside to the lights of Louisville International. Johnny boarded the plane and found his seat. The plane began to roll. It gathered sped, lifted off, banked and headed west through a clear night sky. Johnny thought of LA and of Roy, who would be at the airport to pick him up. His eyelids drooped, heavy with exhaustion. He was asleep before the plane was in straight and level flight. There was no turbulence now.

       Back in rural Kentucky in a freshly covered grave under a tent marked Bernard's Funeral Home, Marie Martin slept, too.

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