• Mick Brady

A Little Tenderness

Updated: Aug 22



The clouds looked like huge puffs of popcorn. Will pressed her forehead to the cool window of the jet and peered at the earth below through the clear blue space between. She saw large, perfect circles cut into the ground, clustered at the feet of barren mountains. They were brown and featureless, some overlapping -- like crop circles without the crops.

The wheels on the bus go 'round and 'round. Nothing looked familiar, but Will felt she had strapped into this ride many times before.

The plane shook, and a large woman working her way down the aisle let out an involuntary yelp as she lurched sideways. A soft chime sounded and the seatbelt light flashed on. The pilot announced they were heading into some turbulence. The woman appeared stricken with indecision for a moment, a mere dozen feet away from the bathroom.

It's starting, Will thought.

The only time she had navigated Midwestern airspace without some abnormal event interfering with her flight was on the single occasion when her itinerary included a layover in Chicago. The things that happened on the ground there made her determined never to go back, but back she had gone -- time and time again -- every time she tried to go home.

Will always booked her connecting flight through Detroit, but she had yet to catch a glimpse of that city. Inevitably -- no matter what direction she came from -- something would happen to force her plane to land at O'Hare. A faulty cockpit light. An airport security alert. Tornadoes in Kansas. Once a passenger suffered a heart attack.

Something always brought her down, down from the breathless uncertainty of skimming over a field of popcorn in a tin can full of anxious, smelly travelers to the dreadful certainty of tires slamming into pavement, giant bird riding its brakes, suffocating march into the terminal, ticket clerk saying, "Sorry, no more flights to Sault Ste. Marie tonight."

Will knew that the big lady would not make it to the bathroom just as surely as she knew that she would not make it to Detroit. A storm was brewing. Almost as soon as the thought took form, the jet became engulfed in a torrent of lashing sideways rain with thunder drumming and lightning strobing.

The pilot announced they would be making an unscheduled landing in Chicago due to the freak weather. For most of the passengers, hitting the runway ended the terror. For Will, it was the beginning.

She sat in the waiting area near the gate for almost an hour, trying to form a plan that would keep her from leaving the airport. It was only when she caught the sympathetic glance of an airline employee as he shut down the desk and prepared to leave her completely alone that she felt the impulse to get up and walk. Airline employees were rivaled only by hospital nurses for their steely, uncaring demeanors, in Will's experience. That one would look at her with so much unguarded pity was unsettling.

"Watch your step," a disembodied voice warned, as Will rode the moving walkway ever closer to a confrontation with the outside world. Neon sculptures glowed menacingly above her. She rode slowly toward the exit she had been determined to avoid. The rain was falling vertically when Will stepped outside. The sound was steady and hypnotic. Under the protective overhang, the air felt hot and stale. A taxi pulled up, and the driver beckoned.

She slid into the back seat. "The nearest hotel, please."

He sat motionless behind the wheel. The man was small and slight. He didn't look at all like a cab driver -- he wore a black suit and fedora. Will glanced at his ID photo and saw a swarthy complexion and a beaky nose. His name was John Smith.

"The nearest hotel?" she repeated.

The driver's head whipped around. "There are no rooms!"

Will stared at him, unflinching. He glared back. He blinked once, slowly.

"You don't scare me," she lied.

She opened the door and tumbled to the pavement as the taxi sped away.

Will lay on the wet concrete for a moment, seemingly invisible to the crowd milling around. As she scrambled to her knees, she felt a shadow looming over her. Will looked up and met the sad eyes of the man, possibly a lawyer, who lately had appeared on an Australian talk show.

"I can help you," he said.

"I need to go home," she whispered.

"I know."

He held out his hand, and Will grasped it. He guided her back into the terminal with a light touch under her elbow, which Will found oddly comforting.

"I'm Will Roan," she said softly.

"Adam Fort," he replied.

They entered an airport restaurant, and Adam ordered large steak dinners for both of them. Will ordered a pitcher of martinis.

"I have to warn you -- I'm not quite in touch with reality," she said, as if joking. "In fact, I don't know if you're who you say you are or just a figment of my latest psychotic break. Don't suppose you can clear that up."

In truth, she was beginning to relax in the man's presence, and it occurred to her that he was handsome in an unobtrusive way. His gray eyes were clear and intelligent.

"I can see that you're alone and afraid."

"And you just go around rescuing people? Like Batman?" "Something like that." He smiled. "I don't quite have his flair, though."

Will forgot the strangeness of their encounter when the food arrived. She hadn't realized until then that she was famished. She dove in. Adam ate slowly, carefully -- as though working through a difficult math problem between bites. They shared a bottle of wine with the meal and sipped brandy afterward. Whether due to Adam Fort's reassuring presence or the effects of the alcohol, Will's nerves at last calmed.

"What now?" she asked. Though the meal had used up a good two hours, Will still had an entire night to get through. Adam's eyes met hers, and it occurred to her that she might be on her own again. She felt a tingle of apprehension shoot to her fingertips.

"I have a room nearby," he said. "There are two beds."

"I'm not afraid of you," Will said. This time she meant it.

Will didn't wait to reach Adam's room, instead flinging herself at him in the elevator on the way up. She whispered a suggestion into his ear and followed it with a prolonged kiss, burrowing into him as though she might freeze to death without his heat.

Although her onslaught must have taken him by surprise, he didn't resist. He held her as though she was someone he cherished, rather than a brazen woman he just met. Will would always remember the tender expression in his gray eyes.

This is Excerpt No. 4 of The Darkest Eyes by Mick Brady


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