There is no advantage to promising you’ll show up for breakfast, when, after all these years, everyone knows you won’t.
“I’m sorry.” I blurted the apology with the heat of the sun at my back. The screen door slammed shut on my backside with creaky derision, a spanking I deserved. I focused on my elongated shadow on the floor. “I overslept.”
I noticed the empty dishes on the kitchen table. The remainders of half a sausage and a slice of bacon lay in a pool of congealed fat.
Mom dried dishes in front of the sink. She gave the lobster clock on the wall—whose claw hands were about to hit the stroke of noon—a pointed look, and then turned it on me.
“I met an accident on the highway. There was a long line-up.” In my embellishment, I neglected to add that the accident occurred only a half-hour ago, less than a kilometre away. If I’d been on time, I wouldn’t have met it.
To be helpful, I grabbed a dishtowel and pulled a wet plate from the rinse water. I let it drip over the sink for a few seconds, high enough to hide my mother’s disappointed face.
“How do you expect to teach English in Korea for a year when you can’t even arrive at breakfast on time?”
This was how she communicated long-suffering disappointment: a slight arch to her right eyebrow, a reasonable tone of voice and a pained expression.
And to follow, the Resigned Sigh.
I dried the dishes and put them in their place on the open shelf above our heads. “I know, I’m sorry. I stayed up too late last night, and I shouldn’t have.”
Mom was disappointed for good reason, of course. I am always late. Not just for important occasions like weddings, funerals and first dates, but also with assignments, bills and any promise I might have cause to regret.
I made a bid to look organized. “My roommate is subletting my bedroom for the year and my share of utilities is paid up. I’m keeping my cell phone, but only for video chat, so don’t try to call me—I’ll call you. And you’re keeping the car, so, I think that’s it.”
I noticed her face soften a little. “Well, I’ve been meaning to talk to you about that—” she began, but was interrupted by my brother Gary, who sauntered out of the bathroom.
“Hey, it’s Silly Milly. You did say breakfast, didn’t you, not lunch?”
I made a face and flicked some dishwater at him. “Hello to you, too.”
My older brother and his family were home from Boston on their yearly visit. He walked up behind me and poked my ribs with one long finger—his version of a hug.
Gary’s wife emerged from the spare room with one of their little boys in tow at almost the same moment. “Yeah, didn’t someone say they’d be here by eight? Hello, Milly. How are you?”
“I’m okay. And you?”
“Not as tired as Ruth.” Trudy pulled fresh diaper supplies out of a canvas bag while she nodded in Mom’s direction. “She was up at the crack of dawn, cooking up a storm.”
Ah, the sweet melody of guilt.
I shrugged. “Something always seems to happen…”
“Stuck at a four-hour accident?” There was a sparkle of laughter in Gary’s eyes.
I shot him a dirty look. “Yeah. And then a bird hit the windshield, which startled me so much I hit the shoulder and almost went off the road.”
Mom pulled her hands out of the dishwater. “What? On the way here?”
Weird, huh?” I nodded. “Second time this week.”
Mom’s eyebrows knitted together. “Okay, that’s it, then. You really can’t get on that plane.”
“What? Why?” We all stopped our movements and stared at her.
“Because when I got up this morning, a bird hit your bedroom window.”
I looked at her, confused.
“It’s a bad omen.” Her face was stony, arms crossed. “You shouldn’t go.”
I screwed up my mouth and shook my head. “Wow, this is a change of heart. You want me to cancel my plans because of birds?” Her superstitions always trumped logic.
“You know what happened to Great Gram.”
“A blackbird flew into her house through an open door and sat on the fireplace watching her. Three days later—dead.”
Gary indulged her with a grin. “Ma, that’s coincidence.”
She wagged a finger at him. “Don’t you laugh at me, young man. Two months later, two crows hit the window of my Uncle Walter’s house two days in a row. Two days later—dead.”
I put my hands on her shoulders. “He was stage four.”
Mom whipped around to the sink. The water splashed up as her hands dove with more gusto than before. “Exactly. This is a bad idea.”
It was useless to talk Mom out of her weird ideas, so we dropped the subject. My brother and his wife were still anxious to return to the real issue, anyway—my deficiencies.
“Psychologists say being late all the time is the mark of an arrogant person.” Trudy knelt in front of her little boy, who lay before her, spread-eagled on a vinyl pad. She was absorbed in changing his poopy bum. This was Trudy’s common MO. Distracted on the surface, but underneath she was engaged in the calculated mission of improving people.
“Oh, come on, that’s not true. I snorted with derision and hoped it covered up my sense of shrinking into the ground.
The tone of her voice was rapier-light as she changed her toddler’s bum. “Yes, it’s ‘a manifestation of disorganization or hostility that is fully within one’s ability to control.’ Meaning: you think your time is more valuable than everybody else’s. Either that, or you’re insane.”
My mouth dropped open. I wanted to say, “And your kid having to be spotless all day, every day—even at the beach—I wonder what kind of neurosis that would be?”
But I couldn’t say it. I can never say anything here.
“Oh, is that all? Just insane? For God’s sake, I—dammit, I slept in, that’s all!”
Mom finished the last dish and put it in the rack to dry. “That’s enough, all of you,” she said, while she removed her apron. “Millicent, I saved you a plate.” She pointed to the oven and then whisked out of the room, face still lit with fear.
I tossed the towel on top of the dishrack and stepped into the sunny warmth of the screen door. Beyond the front yard was the Richibucto River, which silhouetted the tree-lined bank in sparkling waves.
I decided to give assertiveness a try. “I’m not arrogant. And I resent you saying that I am.”
Gary put his hands on his hips. “Milly, breakfast was your idea and then you didn’t show. You’re 24 years old, and your word still doesn’t mean anything.”
“It does bother me to be late.”
He made a face. “Not enough to do anything about it. You’re completely selfish.”
I stared up at him. It seems I’ve always been looking up. By the time I was nine, he was eighteen and an intimidating six-foot-three. “I love it when you visit, by the way.”
He patronized me with a downward glance through his glasses. “I’m serious. Stop being a baby. Life is about responsibility.”
There was no point in trying to change his mind. I decided to wing it. “What about the weird times in life when being late turns out to be the best thing?”
Gary shoved his glasses up the bridge of his nose with one finger and sat down at the table. “This should be good. Like when?”
I dropped down across from him and drummed my fingers on the scratched maple surface. “What about 9/11? I bet there were people who scheduled meetings at the World Trade Center that morning, but they missed them for some reason.” I counted on my fingers. “What if they overslept? Or they realized they double-booked appointments and cancelled? Or they missed a taxi because they spent too much time on their hair, and they couldn’t get another one at rush hour…?”
They both burst into peals of laughter, as Trudy bounced upward from her crouched position. She tossed the soiled diaper into the garbage and washed her hands in the sink. “You’re no better than your mother. You’re using the most unlikely example as an excuse to not be more punctual.”
I don’t know why I kept trying to convince them. “Maybe control is an illusion.”
Trudy leaned against the sink, feet crossed at her ankles while she dried her hands. “Your chances of being caught in a terrorist attack are about one in twenty million. But your chances of not being able to keep a job or friends because you’re always late is much higher.”
“You never know, hon. She could have been avoiding disasters all this time, and we’ve been hard on her for nothing.” Gary ruffled my hair. “If that ever happens, I promise to apologize. I think you’ll have more luck if you set an alarm.”
I slapped his hand away, then jumped up and pushed open the wooden screen door, barely avoiding my little nephew, who was stumbling toward his mother with a big orange ball. “Thanks for the advice. If you visit next year, I probably can’t make it.”
The door slammed on his attempts to call me back. “Aw, don’t be so—”
After I bounced off the veranda, I passed through a stand of pine trees and followed the uneven footpath down to the sandy beach.
Kicking off my flip-flops, I waded knee deep in the cool water and splashed around with force. Seven days from now I would fly to Korea and I would leave all my baggage behind.
MONCTON—TORONTO—VANCOUVER—SEOUL. I folded the flight itinerary up and stuck it in my overnight bag. My small pile of stuff was a great source of satisfaction. I had managed to fill a year’s necessities into two small suitcases and an overnight bag.
I stretched and yawned in the lineup. Last night, I was so excited about the trip that I hardly slept. I was looking forward to a nap on the plane.
The Moncton airport clerk filed my itinerary and set my boarding passes for all three flights. See, Mom? I can be organized. Easy.
After an uneventful flight to Toronto, a landing strip at the airport was closed. We circled for something like forty minutes and the whole connection chain was delayed. I worried I wouldn’t make the next plane.
I hurried to the next gate and looked at my itinerary.Is twenty minutes enough time to find a washroom? I had to pee the whole time I was on the plane, but I don’t like airplane washrooms—I have this weird phobia about being sucked out. A security guard pointed me to the nearest bathroom.
“Last call for flight 213 to Vancouver.” I heard it over the loudspeaker afterward, as I washed my hands, but didn’t stop to dry them. My pee break took seven minutes.
I saw a concession stand nearby. Could I get a sandwich and still make my connection? There were three people ahead of me.
It doesn’t take that long to buy a sandwich.
I slipped over and examined the offerings. Turkey or roast beef, I wondered?
“Last call for flight 213 to Vancouver,” the muffled voice intoned again.
How about turkey and bacon? I reached the head of the line, paid for the sandwich and ran to the gate.
“Two minutes to spare,” said the flight attendant, who looked relieved on my behalf as she checked my boarding pass.
I shot a thankful smile in her direction and saw that except for a couple of people jostling with their overhead luggage compartments, everyone was seated and staring at me. I felt the familiar urge to apologize.
“You’re lucky they didn’t leave without you.” My seat partner laughed, a tiny old woman with sharp blue eyes, accentuated with a generous smear of metallic blue. “My granddaughter is always late, too. What’s your name, dear?”
She hit my shoulder with the back of her hand. “Get out of town. That’s my name. I don’t know any other Milly’s who are younger than sixty.”
I stared straight ahead, taking care not to sigh too deeply. She was a talker.
Hour one: her progeny. “I have two daughters and a son, all in their fifties and nearly retired.” She pulled out pictures, since she said she was too old to use a phone. “Six grandchildren. That’s my oldest Leslie—she’s always late. Sometimes I think that’s genetic…”
Hour two: Old Milly talked about her dogs and cats. “I love pets. My husband was allergic so we could never have any, but he’s dead now. I bought two cairn terriers and four Himalayans right after my husband’s funeral.” She gave me a wicked glance. “I have a one-bedroom condo in Toronto and I had to fight with the condo board to allow any pets at all, let alone six.”
My eyelids were heavy, but she woke me up every time I nodded off.
“If you don’t mind,” I said, “I haven’t slept much in the last 24 hours and I have another long flight ahead of me, so…”
She smiled and patted my hand. “Oh yes, I totally understand. I have a hard time sleeping just before a big event too, and then I’m knackered for days. Where are you headed?”
Short of exploding into verbal abuse at an old woman who clearly needed to find someone to talk to other than her cats, I didn’t see how I could get her to shut up. I ordered a vodka and orange and forced myself to reply.
“I’m going to teach English in Korea for a year.”
“Oh, yes, my friend’s grandson did that last year, but it turned out to be a nightmare. You might have heard it on the news. Did you know he was murdered on his first week in Seoul? No…wait, I’m wrong. It was Beijing.” She patted my hand. “Never mind, you’ll be safe in Seoul.”
And so on. I sipped my drink and gazed longingly at the woman in the next aisle, who was enjoying her giant romance novel in silence. She caught my gaze and smirked.
Old Milly leaned on my arm as we walked into arrivals in Vancouver. “There now, see? That didn’t take long at all.”
I leaned against a wall and yawned, savouring the silence after Old Milly found her family. My final, 13-hour flight wouldn’t leave for another two hours. I looked at a row of empty chairs with longing, but I promised myself I’d sleep on the plane.
I cruised through a bookstore and purchased a magazine. I bought another snack and some handmade chocolates. Then I passed a flower shop, and on a whim, chose a premade arrangement with red roses, white gerberas and baby’s breath for my mother.
“I would like to send these to New Brunswick,” I asked the guy behind the counter, who ignored me while he punched information into a laptop. “How long will it take?”
His name was Dave, according to his name tag. Dave looked up with an air of bored snobbery, as though both I and his job were beneath him. “We’re a national network of florists. The way it works is, we post the order and it’s delivered within 24 hours from a florist in that location.”
“Are you sure? Within a day?” I opened my wallet.
Dave’s eyebrow arched a bit higher. “Usually sooner.” He picked up a pen and leaned over an order form. “What message do you want to send?”
I thought for a moment. “About to board my flight to Korea. See? I wasn’t late. I guess some things are in my control. Have a great year. Love, Milly.”
Dave softened a little while he filled out the order. “I hate being late, too,” he said. “And the worst thing is when other people make me wait.”
I handed over my payment. “Yes. I’ve heard it’s a sign of arrogance.”
He agreed with a brisk nod.
All that shopping took about an hour. I found my departure gate and flipped through my magazine, filled with the satisfaction to be early for something.
Feeling the heat, I peeled off my sweater and tied it around my waist. I stretched. Then I rubbed the corners of my eyes and opened them wide. I rested my head against the wall behind me, fixing my gaze on the arrival/departure screen. Flight 3407 to Seoul was leaving on time from gate 58. I flicked a glance toward the gate number to assure myself I was in the right place.
I closed my eyes for just a second.
Moments later, I opened them to see a security guard, gently shaking my right shoulder. “Ma’am? Are you where you’re supposed to be?”
His question confused me. The clock across the room came slowly into focus.
“Is that the right time?” I asked, panicked. Shit, I slept an hour! I looked around. The waiting area was empty. “I was waiting for a flight to Korea. It was leaving from this gate.”
A sick look flooded over the security guard’s face. “Ma’am, they changed the departure gate 45 minutes ago. They left from Gate 78,” he said. “But I think you missed it. They were paging someone. Are you Milly Dupuis?”
He pointed me in the right direction, and I ran. The blond behind the boarding counter put her shoulders back when she saw me.
“I’m so sorry, the flight left ten minutes ago.” She smiled with professional regret. “They waited as long as they could.”
“No.” My stomach dropped into my feet.
Her lips twisted in apology. “Sorry.”
I was still for a second, and then something broke in me. “Oh! This is great. So good—Soo-o—so damn good!” I screeched. I dropped my carryon and I threw my ticket on the ground and I stamped on it a million times. My brother’s face flashed before my eyes. “Yes, yes. That’s just great. I’m late again. How d’ya like me now, G-aaary?”
The airport staff gave each other coded looks. “Miss?” A tall, male flight attendant said, in deliberate tones. “You’re going to have to calm down or we’ll call airport security and have you removed.”
I stopped all movement except for a sideways look with my eyes. “I don’t suppose I can get another flight today?” I used the quietest voice I could muster. “Without paying for another ticket?”
They glanced at each other and then at me, shaking their heads. “It’s not the airline’s fault that you overslept, Ma’am. But we could give you a voucher for a hotel stay.”
I sucked at my bottom lip and looked around. I had drawn a crowd, some with cell phones aimed at me. Perhaps Gary could enjoy my meltdown on YouTube shortly?
“Right,” I whispered, shielding my face with one hand. “When is the next available flight?”
Blondie focused on her console. “There’s a flight available in two days, but we can put you on standby.”
I reached for my wallet, but she stopped me. “Wait.” She pointed down the hall. “You have to go pay at that ticket counter. Maybe security should take you? We wouldn’t want you to get lost.”
I held up a hand. “No. I can find the way.”
With pride swallowed, two hours later I was ensconced in a nearby hotel, worrying about my baggage that would land in Korea long before I did. I hoped I would catch up with it before my clothes ended up in some dusty second-hand store. At least I had a change of clothes with me.
In Vancouver it was early evening, but the time difference flying from Atlantic Canada had caught up with me. I dropped my overnight bag on the bed and fell backward on the mattress beside it.
As I closed my eyes, I figured my life course was laid out, determined. I’m the Late Milly Dupuis.
By the time I awoke, it was seven-thirty in the morning.
While I stumbled to the bathroom, I debated whether to call Mom. Could I stand the ribbing? I considered blowing her off. She’d never know when I arrived in Seoul unless I told her, right?
But I remembered the bird talk and decided it would be cruel not to tell her. Resigned to my embarrassment, I picked up the hotel phone and dialed her number.
“Hello?” Mom sounded breathless, frantic.
“Hi. It’s Milly.” I used my most deadpan voice possible.
“Millicent!” she screeched. I heard her yelling. “It’s her, it’s Milly!” There were cries of relief from familiar voices, including Gary’s. Why is he still there?
“Mom?” I tried to get her attention. “What’s wrong?”
She ignored me, bent on asking her own questions. “Where are you? Are you okay?”
“I’m fine,” I said, steeling myself for the onslaught. “Stuck in a hotel room in Vancouver.”
Mom burst into tears.
I rushed to reassure her. “Look, it’s not that big a deal. I had enough money to buy another ticket.” She only cried louder.
Finally, she managed a few hiccupy words. “Your flowers just arrived.”
“Wow, so soon! Do you like them?”
“They’re my favourite,” she whimpered. “You told me—you told me to have a good year. We thought…Oh, thank God.”
This was not the derision I expected. “What’s going on? Why you’re so upset?”
No reply but sobs. Great. She’s going to make me spell it out.
“Milly, turn the television on.” Mom cleared her throat.
A spooky thrill rose up my spine as I grabbed the remote.
“Your flight went down over the Sea of Okhotsk. Nobody knows why. When I got the flowers…” She dissolved into another crying jag.
I fumbled for a news channel. “An Air Canada flight with 283 passengers and fifteen crew members on board has been reported missing.” The news anchor’s voice intoned sober and deep. “The Boeing 777, travelling from Vancouver to Seoul, Korea, was reported to have asked for an unusual route because of bad weather. The aircraft, flight number 3407, lost contact with air traffic control in Tokyo. The thirteen-hour flight was reported as delayed.”
I stumbled backwards, feeling for the edge of the bed.
“Why weren’t you on the plane?” I heard her sniffles. “We knew you had a boarding pass and worried there was a mix up.”
I sank to the mattress and stared at the television. The hairs on the back of my neck rose. “I overslept.”