x x x
Short. Average. Tall. She circles tall. Slim. Average. Fat. She circles slim.
There’s a whole page to list the missing person’s distinguishing features: dental record, skin marks and past injuries. This is accompanied by an outline of an androgynous body, front and back, and a teeth chart. Margo guesses she's supposed to mark an X in the spots that indicate Jack’s moles, scars and cavities.
The questions mock her. Giving Oceanic access to these private details won’t change the fact that her son is probably dead. At best they’ll be used to identify his body.
Her chest heaves when she imagines a severed arm, covered in tattoos, the ones he took such caution to hide from her. She never knew about them until she overheard a group of nurses gossiping about Jack. After that she strained to catch a glimpse but only ever caught flashes of colour. Then one afternoon Jack had come over to mow the lawn while Christian was away, even though he was fully aware this was a chore the gardener regularly performed, not his father. She figured Jack needed something to keep his mind off the divorce papers that sat unsigned somewhere in his condo. She watched him from the kitchen window, so methodical in his work; the mower could have been guided by a t-square. Halfway through, he took off his shirt and there they were. They took her breath away.
She skips this section and moves to the last page.
The next form is equally ridiculous. It’s the one for lost luggage, as if her son’s plane had simply been misrouted and somewhere he sat on a carousel waiting to be claimed. The airline wants her to list the value and contents of Jack’s belongings. She wonders if Christian’s coffin is to be considered part of his luggage? Margo takes perverse pleasure in writing ‘a change of clothes’ and ‘one dead body’. She offers no context other than the mildly hysterical snicker that accompanies this writing.
She places her pen on the clipboard. She’s done but Margo doesn’t leave right away, nor does she seek out one of the grief counsellors. Instead she watches the other next-of-kin sniffling in the LAX Hilton, ballroom C. They’re bent over their forms, consulting with family and friends, agonizing over their responses. They hope that by correctly identifying whether their husband, daughter or mother had pierced ears or carried a copy of the Da Vinci Code will make their loved ones magically reappear on the radar.
“Can I borrow your pen?” A weary woman seated in the row in front of Margo turns around, bringing with her a cloud of perfume. Margo notes they are about the same age, and like her, she is one of the few who came alone. The woman shakes her pen, rattling the cluster of rosary beads clutched in her fist. “Mine’s dead.” She pales over her choice of words. “Broken,” she clarifies.
“Thank you.” The woman takes Margo’s pen, their fingers touch briefly. “This is for my son.”
The woman nods. “I’ll pray for him,” she says and returns to her paperwork.
Margo closes her eyes. She tries not to return to her last conversation with Jack but it’s what keeps coming back. When she’d spoken to him two nights ago, he had been all business, an exchange of times and numbers and names, like they were handling a real estate transaction not a funeral. He couldn’t have sounded further away if he had been on the moon. She said she would pick him up at the airport but he told her not to bother, his car was there. He would meet her at the funeral home. She wanted to thank him for going to Australia, to say she was sorry for blaming him for his father’s problems but he had cut her off, explaining he still needed to call the airline. His voice cracked when he said good-bye. She should have called him back.
“Would you care for a drink?” asks an Oceanic employee. Margo stares at the young woman, not quite comprehending. She forgets where she is and touches her waist, checking for a seatbelt. Although the woman is out of uniform, Margo suspects she regularly asks this question 20,000 feet in the air.
“I’ll have a gin and tonic.”
“I’m sorry, ma’am. We only have water, coffee or juice.”
Margo’s face reddens and she waves the woman away. She stands, puts on her raincoat and tucks the clipboard under her arm.
The woman who borrowed the pen is tapping her on the shoulder. “Thank you.”
Margo snatches it back and drops it in her purse, rushes out of her row. She doesn’t know who she should give her forms. The airline officials are all at the front of the ballroom and it seems too far of a walk. The floor tiles sway in front of her, little squares of purple and gold and orange. She wonders who came up with that awful colour scheme before she falls to her knees.
Suddenly the woman who borrowed her pen is at her side, grasping her arm. She’s short and soft but strong and is able to hold them both up. They exchange a look of sorrow that needs no words. Together they walk to the front and hand in their forms.
An hour later, in the hotel bar, they’ve gone through a bottle of red wine and started on another. She’s seen a dozen pictures of Hugo from infancy through adolescence. Margo regrets not having any with her of Jack, not only to show Carmen but to look at herself. She frets that she can’t remember exactly what he looks like. She flashes to the photos framed on her dresser and there’s a rush of tangible memories: slippery, soapy Jack clamouring over the side of the bath, the starchy feel of the baseball uniform he insisted on wearing for a week after his Little League team won the championship and how powerful his handshake felt the day he graduated medical school.
Carmen confesses that she fought with Hugo before he left. She called him and his quest crazy, when really, she just didn’t want him to go. And he wasn’t even supposed to be on this plane. He had changed his plans at the last minute to be home for her birthday. Margo admits she’s the reason Jack was in Australia and that angry words were all they had between them too.
“Do believe in curses?” Carmen asks. She reaches to her throat, touches the tiny gold cross.
“We’re all cursed.” Margo means humanity in general but particularly mothers. She wouldn’t dare say this out loud to anyone else. It’s not just the wine that loosens their tongues. There’s a kinship that comes from losing their sons that is independent of the missing plane.
“Maybe Jack and Hugo are sitting together somewhere on a deserted island trading stories of how horrible their mothers are.”
“Hugo knows better than to air his dirty laundry in public,” Carmen insists but she laughs anyway.
Margo finds herself inviting Carmen to Christian’s funeral. She accepts the invitation, confused at first to whose funeral Margo means. They part with an embrace that feels like home.
x x x
Margo sits in the front pew between her sister and Christian’s sister. The church is packed to capacity. She knows few from St. Sebastian would have attended if not for the crash. Only a good tragedy can replace a scandal. She recognizes several of Jack’s old friends from college and high school. She thinks how nice it is for them to have come and then realizes they’re really here for Jack, not Christian. Sarah is here too, sitting in the back, wearing a fancy black hat. It’s suited for a widow but she’s not pulling it off and Margo feels like ripping it from her head. At least she had the good sense not to bring her fiancé.
She doesn’t see Carmen until they go to the cemetery to bury the empty casket. She’s standing by a tree off to the side. Margo leaves her sister and goes to her. They embrace and Carmen doesn’t protest being drawn into the family circle. They hold hands and cry for their sons. Margo forgets that this is her husband’s funeral.
Later in the limousine, her sister-in-law asks if that woman was her maid. Margo slaps her across the face.
Still no news.
They sit together at the latest Oceanic meeting. Carmen brings her other son and Margo tries not to be envious of Diego’s existence. They all note the number of lawyers have tripled since the first meeting, far out numbering the counsellors. There are only a handful of journalists at the briefing. Despite the airline’s insistence that the search is ongoing, the media has already moved onto other stories.
Margo pulls up in front of Carmen’s home, her mouth agape. The house towers over her own. She feels stupid for her assumptions, for not putting the pieces together. Hugo is Hurley, the lottery winner.
They drive to a convent in Tijuana. Three years ago, Carmen’s neighbour’s friend came here and prayed to a shrine of the Virgin Mary in the convent garden. She asked Mary to help find her granddaughter who had been taken from a playground. A day later the girl’s father returned her home. Margo’s not Catholic, nor exceptionally religious but she lights a candle anyway and places it at the base of the statue.
On the way home, Carmen explains that St. Anthony is the Patron Saint of Lost Things but only Mary knows what’s it like to lose a son.
Oceanic announces the plane carrying the passengers and crew of Flight 815 was found on the bottom of the ocean. There were no survivors.
Thanks a lot Mary, Margo thinks.
A few days after the funerals, Margo and Carmen pack a picnic and take it to a beach. They sit on a blanket tucked into a dune, eat fried chicken and watch the ocean. It’s the first time Margo feels Jack is truly gone.
Margo helps Carmen sort through Hugo’s things. Sometimes she forgets how different their sons are—were. She has taken to visualizing Hugo as a slightly bigger version of Jack but seeing his room, she realizes its former resident was closer to a boy than a man. It’s full of posters, CDs, model cars, comic books and t-shirts with strange sayings. Jack’s condo seems sterile in comparison. That made it easier for her to pack it up but saddens her now. She realizes she doesn’t really know who her son grew up to be other than a doctor.
She packs Hugo’s collection of albums in a box. Apparently they’re being given to the boy’s father.
x x x
She no longer counts the days. Once one year passed, blocks of time measured by sunrises and sunsets lost their meaning. She keeps busy, working in her garden and volunteering on the hospital board. Last month she organized a fundraiser for a fellowship that will go in Jack’s name, Christian’s too, she guesses.
She’s cooking tomato sauce when the phone rings. Carmen and Lawrence are coming for dinner and they're bringing Lawrence’s friend Dan. They’ve been trying to set her up with him up for months and finally Margo’s relented.
“Hello.” She keeps stirring with one hand and wedges the phone between her shoulder and ear, reaches to turn down the burner. All she hears is static and then the phone disconnects. Annoyed, she sets it on the counter.
When it rings again a minute later, she almost doesn’t pick up. She still has to shower and change and make the salad. But then she thinks it might be Carmen, calling to tell her what to wear. Something low cut, she’ll suggest.
“Hello.” Again there’s a flurry of static. “Hello?”
Her first instinct is that it’s a prank but who would do such a thing?
“Are you there? It’s…Jack.”
Margo kneels on the kitchen floor, still holding the wooden spoon in one hand. Sauce drips down her arm, splatters her white sweater. “Jack?”
She can barely follow what he’s saying. He explains he’s in a rush because lots of other people need to use the phone. He’s on a ship heading home. There’s more—something about an island and experiments and she swears he said something about a sister. He gives her a phone number. She can’t find any paper so she scrambles to write it on her hand. He tells her someone named Penny will explain the rest. Jack promises he’ll call her again as soon as he can.
Then he’s gone. Only the number scrawled on her palm proves he was ever there. Margo dials it with a shaky finger. It’s busy. She sits back on the floor, too stunned to cry or question the absurdity of it all. She wants to call Carmen but fears doing so would tie up her line and make her miss Hugo’s call.
She’s still sitting on the floor, an hour later, when the doorbell rings. When she doesn’t answer, Carmen comes in and finds her in the kitchen. She joins her on the floor, holds her friend tight and sends Lawrence to get a cool cloth from the washroom. She keeps asking, what’s wrong? What’s wrong?
Since her first failed try, Margo had been able to connect with Penny. Her explanation was as garbled as Jack’s but at least she confirmed that twenty-three survivors of Flight 815 were rescued last night from an island in the South Pacific.
Jack was one of them.
The Englishwoman also had another list, those who had survived the crash but not the subsequent two years.
Hugo was one of them.
Her heart breaks for her friend. She already believes her son to be dead but knowing he had been alive much longer and was now gone will be like burying him all over. Margo almost wishes their positions were switched so she wouldn’t have to carry the burden of survival. She selfishly fears this means the end of their friendship.
She lets Carmen hold her for a moment longer, relishing the quiet seconds before her friend knows the truth.
Then she pulls back. “Honey…” Now she’s the one grasping Carmen’s hands in her own. “It’s about Jack and Hugo…”
x x x