Sara watches the martini hovering in the air above the passenger in front of her. The plane has dipped, taking its belted-in passengers with it, but leaving their drinks behind.
The plane levels off and the martini drops from sight. Sara turns to the handsome stranger in the window seat. She had been wondering how to start a conversation. The floating drink would provide her with an opening.
But when she turns to speak, he's looking at her.
"You impress me," he says.
She is silent, caught off guard.
"You napped through take-off," he says. "And this turbulence doesn't bother you. Your unflappable.
"I'm usually flappable," she says. "But I've been working so hard lately that when the plane dropped all I thought of were the deadlines and projects I wouldn't have to worry about if we went down."
He smiles. "I'm David Sullivan," he says.
"Sara Elliot." They reach awkwardly over their seat-back tables to shake hands.
"You're traveling to Rome on business?" he asks.
"I'm just a messenger. I'm running papers over to our Italian branch for signatures. If all goes well it will mean the completion of a very complicated merger."
In fact Sara negotiated the merger herself, and is quite proud of it. But she doesn't know how he feels about successful businesswomen. Plenty of men find them intimidating.
"That's a coincidence," he says. "I'm also a messenger. Unlike you, however, I'm the bearer of bad news."
"Could be worse," says Sara. "The ancient Romans killed messengers who brought bad news."
He looks startled, then smiles bleakly and turns his attention to the clouds outside.
She sighs. Not the first time she's put someone off with her habit of saying whatever popped into her head. But she has eight hours of flight time in which to recover lost ground. She's too tired to think. During the recent negotiations she hadn't gotten much sleep. She settles back and closes her eyes.
When she wakes, it's dusk and she's completely rested for the first time in weeks. The sky outside is deep blue, with a single rose-colored band at the horizon. David is gazing out, in exactly the same position he'd been in before she dozed off. As if he were a mannequin in a department store window.
"What sort of bad news?" she asks. "Unless you'd prefer not to talk about it."
He turns to face her and smiles. What a smile! In a boardroom it would make her suspicious; businessmen smile like that when they think they have the upper hand and are about to slam you. But this isn't a boardroom, she reminds herself. And in a bedroom....
"I don't mind if you don't," he says. "I feel better when I talk things out."
"So talk," she says.
"My message is for a young woman," he says. "The message is that she has less than a year to live."
"Oh," Sara says, then adds, "Are you a doctor?"
"No. It's not my diagnosis. I just have to break the news."
"She's a relative? A friend?"
"I've never met her. She's a friend of a friend."
"You're flying all the way to Italy to tell a total stranger she's going to die?"
"That's my job," he says. "Breaking bad news to people." He meets her eyes, serious. "I'm quite good at it."
"I'd love to have a peak at your resume," she says with a grin.
"You think I'm joking, don't you? I shouldn't talk about it -- I rarely do. But I wanted to tell you."
The slight emphasis he places on the 'you' intrigues her, but she's not really surprised. For some reason people confide in her. Lost kids. Bums looking for a handout. Runaways looking for shelter. Lost souls and odd ducks like David Sullivan. Still, she feels drawn to his one. He feels familiar somehow. He has beautiful eyes, the color of the sea.
"Excuse me for being skeptical," she says. "But I've never heard of such a thing."
"I doubt if there's anyone else in the world who can do what I do," he says.
"I still don't understand exactly what you do."
"It's simple really," he says. "I have this...knack. I dispel grief."
She looks at him blankly.
"You don't believe me, do you? he repeats. "I discovered it when I was a child. My dad owned a movie theater and I used to help him out on evenings and weekends. Sometimes, in the middle of a show, we'd get a phone call. Something bad had happened to one of the customers. A death in the family, for instance. It was a small town, so we knew everybody. I'd go out with a flashlight to find whoever had to be told and bring them up to the projection room so my Dad could break the bad news."
"Did that happen often?" asked Sara.
"Often enough. The customer would come stumbling out of fantasyland, out of jungle adventures or beautiful mansions, into this ratty little room, cluttered with trade papers, empty beer cans, film reels. And there'd be no Cary Grant or Rock Hudson there, only Dad, in his undershirt, hanging onto a beer can for moral support.
"My father was a wonderful guy and he hated to cause people pain. He'd stand there gaping at them until they were so nervous and confused they were ready to scream. Finally, he'd blurt out something like 'Your kid just got hit by a streetcar!' or 'Your ma just croaked! God help me, you're an orphan!'"
"Sounds awful," says Sara.
"It was excruciating. So when my classmate Celia Murphy's aunt phoned to say Celia's mother had died, even though I was only ten, I determined to break the news to her myself. Instead of taking her up to my Dad, I took her out to the lobby. I didn't know what to say. But I found myself painting a picture in my mind. Of calm -- absolute calm. It was as if there was nobody in the entire world but her and me. Then I told her. And it was okay."
"Okay? What do you mean okay?"
"She felt no pain," says David softly.
Sara sits back in her seat. "When my mother died," she says. "I cried myself to sleep every night for weeks."
"That's normal," says David. "At first you go into a kind of shock. Then you're sad. You try to understand what's happened to you. Finally, with time, you learn to accept your loss. I just speed up that process. When I break things to people, it takes them seconds instead of years to adjust."
"How can you possibly do that?"
"I don't know how I do it," he says. "Afterwards I can never remember exactly what I've said. But whatever it is, it always works."
Sara tries to imagine her own hours of mourning compressed into a few seconds. She isn't sure she would have wanted that. It's a creepy idea. But for some reason this David Sullivan doesn't give her the creeps.
"You're crazy," she says. "I don't believe you have that strong an influence over people. It's impossible."
"No?" he says. "Consider how you feel about me right now. You've only just met me but you're falling in love with me."
Her stomach feels as though the plane has dropped again.
"I am not falling in love with you," she says.
"Don't be silly," he says gently. "Of course you are."
Now is the time to ask the stewardess for a different seat, Sara thinks. To get into a conversation with someone else, someone normal, about the stock market or the weather in Italy. But she doesn't.
"And you're causing me to feel this way?" she asks. "With this...knack of yours?"
"I must be," he says. "I've never done this before. I didn't even know I could. But -- please believe me -- I wouldn't hurt you for the world."
"I know," she says.
Their eyes meet. Despite everything, she realizes that if there were a bed handy, she'd gladly tumble into it with him. She's never been so drawn to a man before. Now who's crazy?
"You have lovely eyes," he says.
She looks away. "I need a drink," she says.
He orders a bottle of champagne, and when it comes, pours solemnly. They clink glasses. She feels as if she's a kid again, as if the two of them are kids, playing a game. She remembers being a child and believing in magic.
"Finish the story," she says.
"When I was eighteen I was drafted. The army asked for my special skills. I told them. They thought I was crazy, or trying to get out of going to Nam. But men were dying, and breaking the news to their loved ones wasn't a job that anyone was clamoring for. So that's what I did.
"They'd give me the name and address of the next-of-kin, and some information about the deceased, and off I'd go. I never stopped traveling. I got to know the whole country. And I felt I was doing some good."
He stops and pours champagne.
"Then what?" Sara prompts him.
"Then I had my breakdown." He doesn't look at her. "In Grinnel, Iowa. A small town, in the middle of the country, surrounded by cornfield. We touched down in the morning at a tiny airport. It was such a nice day I decided to walk.
"The woman I had to see lived in a big old farmhouse on the edge of town. She wasn't young anymore, but she was pleasant-looking. She had a kind face with lines around the eyes. Yellow hair, pulled back. And a friendly smile.
"Her husband's plane had disintegrated in a freak accident. I told her that he was dead. She just nodded. She didn't say anything. Then she turned and walked back into the house. I followed. I thought she was going to make me tea."
"Tea?" asks Sara gently.
"Often when the news first sinks in," David says, "people make tea. They act as if I'm an invited guest instead of a stranger who's dropped in to destroy their lives. They'll fix tea, or coffee, and we'll sit and chat. Then the news will hit them. They'll put down their tea cup. Sometimes they'll drop it on the floor. Their eyes go blank. After a minute, they're okay."
"They feel no pain?"
"That's right. So I followed her down the hallway towards the kitchen. There was a photo on the wall. I stopped to have a look at it.
"The photo was of a farmhouse at the turn of the century, with a lot of people gathered out on the lawn. The men all had beards or mustaches and wore suits and derby hats, and the women had on long dresses with bustles in back and had their hair piled up on their heads. There were dozens of kids and a few babies. One of the men, a guy with a handlebar mustache, had a small boy hoisted onto his shoulders. The kid was smiling a buck-toothed smile and held up a tiny American flag.
"I realized that the farmhouse in the photo was the same farmhouse I was standing in. But all those people had vanished. I got so lost in that picture I completely forgot where I was until I heard a noise from the kitchen. I ran but I got there too late. She was dead. She'd poisoned herself."
"It wasn't your fault," says Sara.
"That's what the shrink said. But it was my fault. I stopped paying attention. I killed her."
"No," says Sara. "You couldn't have known."
"Maybe. As I stood there, I kept thinking that there was nobody to break the news to me, you know? I knew I should contact someone but I couldn't leave. So I brewed myself a big pot of tea. I took it out on the front porch and drank it, sitting in an old rocker, watching the black birds in the sky over the cornfield. I sat there for hours, rocking.
"Then I was in a hospital. I don't remember getting there. The army ended up giving me a discharge."
"It wasn't your fault," Sara says. She feels like putting her arms around him, but she doesn't.
"When I got out I didn't know what to do," he says. "There was only one thing I did well, and I couldn't do it anymore. So I drifted. I took a bunch of jobs I couldn't hold onto.
"Then a year ago I happened to visit a friend, a doctor, at a hospital where he works. He's a cancer specialist. A brilliant guy, but not real good with people. He'd just got back test results confirming that a patient was dying. A young guy, with a family."
"You volunteered to break the news," Sara says.
He nods. "I was scared I'd lost the power, but I hadn't. I work at that hospital now. I'm officially a social worker, but what I do is break bad news to people. It's a full time job."
"Is the hospital sending you to Italy?"
"No. I'm moonlighting, I guess. A favor for a friend."
He looks out the window again, silent. His face, which had been warm and open as he spoke, suddenly grows cold. He leans forward, peering into the darkness.
What is he thinking? Sara wonders. Perhaps the same thing she is thinking. When this flight ends, will they see each other again? She wants to. She cares about him. If what he'd told her was merely a delusion, she'd help him. She'd get him into therapy. She'd stand by him. If only a delusion, it was a noble delusion -- the desire to ease pain.
But he looks so troubled. Impulsively, she takes his hand. He turns back to her. She feels calm, light-hearted.
It will all be fine, she thinks. Whatever happens, I trust you. She smiles at him.
"Let me pour us some more champagne, Sara," he says. "Then I want to tell you something."
"I've had too much to drink already," she says, leaning toward him, impatient. Anxious. Excited. "Tell me now!"
"The engine," he says. "It's on fire."