Passengers grumbled, visitors gossiped, kids yelled. The airport always buzzed with an activity that could make a person go crazy. After five years of working with tourists, immigrants, travelers and who not, I could handle a majority of situations without losing my composure. Misplaced baggage irked the already grumpy passengers to no end.
I was on a coffee break when I noticed her. In an emerald gown with puffed sleeves, her pale gold hair sprinkled with silver pulled into a messy bun, she sat with an expectant expression on her lovely face.
For the last few weeks, I’ve been seeing her arrive and leave alone. Who was she? I wanted to ask, but the vulnerability around her made me nervous.
“This suspense is killing you, isn’t it, Dan?” Stella elbowed me in the ribs. She was one of the new part-time recruits and had the ease to handle even the most ill-tempered people with a smile on her face.
She grinned. “Go ask.”
I laughed and walked towards the woman. It was easy to approach her as she sat away from the rest of the people flocking at the gates.
“Hello, ma’am.” I greeted politely. For an instant, she looked startled.
Then she smiled. “Hello, young man.”
“I see you wait here every week…” I trailed off.
She patted the seat beside her for me to sit. “I’m waiting for my daughter.”
“Every day, ma’am?” I asked in confusion.
She nodded. “Don’t go ma’aming me. My name is Arielle.”
I flashed her a smile. “I’m Daniel. You can call me Dan.”
“Dan is my daughter. She’s Diana but prefers Dan. Do you know her?” Arielle was excited.
“I don’t think so.” The light dimmed in her eyes.
“So, your daughter, she’s on a trip or something?” I enquired.
Arielle sighed. “Dan is an investigative journalist.”
Stella was waving for me. It was time for another flight to arrive. Arielle noticed. “Go on, Daniel. I need to be home anyway. Steve will go crazy if he finds me missing.”
“Dan, your lady’s here.” Stella chuckled as I rolled my eyes. If there was anything she enjoyed apart from reading hundreds of books and baking those fabulous cakes, it was teasing me.
Arielle beamed when she saw us. Stella waved back.
“Hello, Daniel.” Arielle looked pale as she greeted me.
“Are you feeling well?” I asked concerned.
She huffed. “I take all those nasty medicines, don’t I? I am bloody good. Do you know how irritating it is to have just about every prick ask me about my health?”
I laughed. “Okay, okay.”
Arielle sighed. “I’m sorry, Daniel. So tell me about you.”
The sudden change in topic caught me off guard. “Well, I’m working here for the past five years…”
She rolled her eyes. “Not your job. I asked about you.”
“Well, I’m an occasional sketch artist, I love country music, I make a great omelette, and I keep my house clean by washing all the dirty laundry on time,” I recited.
“And your girlfriend?” She asked mischief dancing in her eyes.
“I had one until she decided she liked my friend more. You are beautiful though.” I winked.
She let out a musical laugh. “Yeah, talk to Steve about it. I was asking about that redhead. What’s her name?” Arielle asked.
“Stella isn’t my girlfriend, Arielle. Why don’t you tell me about you? I’m sure you’ve had a colourful life.” I steered the topic.
She began in a soft tone. “I was Miss Corn Spring when I met Steve. He was the new nerdy boy in town. When he survived my merciless teasing, we realized we made a good pair.”
Arielle chuckled. “The entire town was shocked when they heard the news of our wedding.”
“I think I can imagine. Poor Steve.” I grinned.
“Bah! Don’t let his looks fool you. Dan is so much like him, you know. Those thick lashes, ebony waves, and long legs.” Her smile brightened as she spoke.
“Arielle, I’d love to meet her. But, she’s not here yet, is she?” I asked.
Her smile froze. With a sad shake of her head, Arielle murmured. “No, she’s taking too long to come. Mary will be knocking on my room’s door. I have to go, but I’ll come again.”
“Mary?” I repeated.
“My nurse. I escape from the window during my naptime.” Arielle explained.
I blinked in surprise and asked. “Didn’t Dan tell you when she’d arrive? Why wait every day?”
Arielle turned to look at me. “It’s a game for us. She tells me a date and comes one or two days early to surprise me. But, I’m her mother. So, I surprise her. See you tomorrow, Daniel. Bye, Stella.” Arielle dashed off.
It wasn’t until another week that Arielle came to the airport again. She had a cherry red wrap around her hunched shoulders. Her hair was a bird’s nest.
“Dan, Arielle isn’t well. Go talk to her. I’ll handle here.” Stella pushed me aside to take my place. My curiosity about Arielle was replaced by concern in the past few days.
“Hi, Arielle.” There were shadows under her eyes. Her skin was deadly pale.
“Hello, Daniel.” She sneezed.
“You’ve got cold. Don’t deny it.” I warned her.
Arielle nodded. “I was sick. Dan said she would stop the games until I got well. I spoke to her yesterday.”
I was stunned and angry. “You aren’t well. Your daughter did not come?”
She smacked me hard on the arm. “Don’t you dare take that tone with me, Daniel. My baby loves me more than anything in the world. She knows I am strong enough to handle a simple cold.” Arielle sneezed again.
Murmuring my apologies, I asked if she wanted some coffee. Arielle shook her head.
We sat in silence for a few minutes. I wasn’t sure what to say. At last, I asked. “Was Diana born in Corn Spring?”
Arielle was watching two kids playing nearby. “No. Steve joined a new company. We moved to the city soon after our marriage. I lost all hope when I finally got pregnant.”
Arielle’s hand instinctively went to her abdomen. The soft smile on her face told me how much she enjoyed being a mother.
“Diana is lucky to have you as a mother,” I told her sincerely.
Arielle waved it off. “Dan is a precious diamond. Do you know what she told me yesterday?”
“A secret?” I ventured.
Arielle nodded looking excited again. “She will be coming very soon. I am planning a dinner party.”
“Am I invited?” I asked even as I felt a sense of unease. The feeling that I was missing something crucial was back in full force.
“Of course, silly. You and your Stella are both invited. Even Steve wants to meet you.” Arielle beamed.
“He knows me?” I didn’t know what else to say.
“Obviously,” Arielle shrugged.
“But, you sneak out, don’t you?” I asked. My head was spinning.
“Uh uh, Steve knows everything. When I was dancing in the rain that day, he took me home. I wanted to be angry at him, but then I caught a cold.” Arielle snorted.
Her story was sounding more like a suspense thriller with no end. “I’d be happy to meet Steve. What does he do, by the way?”
“Steve is a partner in that firm; the one that makes bio-something. Ever since he heard about it, he was restless to come to this place. We shifted a few months ago only, you know?” Arielle promptly replied.
I nodded. There was only one ‘bio-something’ company around here. Arielle was Steve River’s reclusive wife.
The announcement boomed before I could ask her anything else. As ever, Arielle stood to leave. But, her legs wobbled. She swayed. I caught her as her head rolled to a side. The next few minutes passed in a blur. Finally, Arielle stirred. Her eyelashes fluttered.
“You fainted. Don’t move too fast.” I murmured as I helped her sit in a comfortable position.
“Oh my!” Arielle whispered her cheeks a shade of crimson.
“You okay now?” I asked anxiously.
She nodded. “Don’t tell Mary about this. She will inform Steve. He won’t let me come out of the house.”
“Mary’s here?” Stella appeared at our side.
“Yes. I ordered Mary to wait outside. Her hovering makes me mad.” Arielle muttered. Together, the three of us walked outside taking one step at a time.
“Arielle, you need to take a lot of rest. Or I’ll personally tell Steve.” I threatened.
With a defeated sigh she nodded. A stout woman in her forties rushed forward.
“I’m fine, Mary. They are my friends. I invited them to dinner tomorrow night. Give them the address.” Arielle told Mary and turned to us.
“You will come, won’t you?” Arielle asked gripping our hands.
“Definitely, Arielle,” I replied.
“I’ll bring my special Devil’s Food Cake. I hope you like chocolate.” Stella grinned.
Arielle clapped her eyes sparkling. “Perfect. It’s been so long since I had guests. See you tomorrow, darlings.”
We stayed until Mary drove away with Arielle blowing us a kiss from her seat.
“She is Mrs. Rivers,” I told Stella.
Her eyes widened and then sobered. “She’ll be fine, don’t you think? I heard he is a good man.”
I could only nod in reply. It was strange how Arielle managed to weave herself into my life, our lives. Wonder what happened to her daughter.
“We’ll be late, Stella,” I announced for the fifth time waiting in her front room.
She yelled. “Take the cake box from the kitchen counter. I’m coming.”
I suppressed a sigh. Stella’s house was an artfully decorated house if one could ignore the books stacked everywhere. I knew she was a book addict, but this was something else. The kitchen at least smelled of vanilla and chocolate.
“Let’s go,” Stella announced as I picked up the box. She looked… beautiful.
“Dan!” She raised an impatient eyebrow.
I shook the errant thoughts away as we drove in silence to the given address.
“Oh, such a lovely house!” She stared at the structure that stood before our eyes.
Mary opened the door and welcomed us. “Please step in.”
The house was warm and colourful like Arielle. There wasn’t a single picture anywhere. Strange.
“Daniel, Stella.” Steve Rivers smiled. Even in casuals, he managed to exert power and confidence of a successful businessman. He was well over six feet with broad shoulders and a quick smile.
“Mr. Rivers.” We greeted him like school kids.
“Thank you for coming. Please, have a seat. Arielle is getting dressed for company.” He gestured to the plush mint green sofa.
Mary offered us some rosé wine and left. It was Stella’s favourite. We had too many questions to ask, but no idea about where to start. Steve solved the problem for us.
“Arielle said you helped her when she fainted in the airport. I can’t thank you enough for that.”
Steve raised in his hand when I began to wave it off. “You have become very important to her. I wish you to know the truth though I’d appreciate if it remains a secret.”
“Is it about Diana?” I asked.
Steve gave us a sad smile. “Diana…”
He stood and walked to the window.
“Did she die in a plane crash?” Stella blurted. I glared at her.
Steve turned to look at us with weary eyes. “She died in the womb.”
I choked on the wine. Whatever theories Stella and I came up with, this wasn’t among those.
“Arielle became desperate when we couldn’t have a baby. There was a time when she made a plan for us to run away with our neighbor’s child. We tried to go for adoption but were denied stating Arielle wasn’t stable. She never harmed anyone. She wasn’t capable of it.” Steve murmured.
“She is a very kind woman, Mr. Rivers.” Stella told him.
He nodded. “She conceived after twelve years of marriage.” His voice was filled with agony. “We knew it was a risky pregnancy. Arielle was ordered bed rest for the entire period. Everything went well or so we thought.”
Stella held my hand. I saw tears in her eyes.
Steve continued. “Arielle named the child and imagined her entire future. Suddenly one night she complained of severe pain. We rushed to the hospital, but… It was a miracle Arielle lived. It was preeclampsia, they said. They could do nothing.”
“I’m sorry, Mr. Rivers,” Stella whispered.
He nodded. “Arielle went into depression. For more than two years, she did nothing except stare at the walls. Finally, when she spoke, she began to talk about the child as if it lived. We moved to five different places in the past twenty years. It was the same pattern everywhere. Arielle would sit near schools, parks, cinemas, and talk about Diana. Many advised me to send her to an asylum. I didn’t. It would have killed her. She lived in her world, but she was happy. Her health gradually got better.”
“Why the airport?” I asked.
“Two months ago, we met a young lady on the plane while returning from a vacation. She was a journalist. Arielle spoke to her throughout the journey.” Steve explained.
“We… Do you want us to stay away from her?” I hoped he wouldn’t ask that of us.
Steve panicked. “Arielle now visits the airport to meet you both. She began to talk about someone other than Diana. I beg you not to leave her.”
Stella walked to him. “Please, Mr. Rivers. You don’t have to plead.”
“Mr. Rivers, I admit I was only curious initially, but as I got to talk to her, I realized what a wonderful woman she is. It’d be an honor if we could be her friends.” I sincerely told him.
“Thank you. Please call me Steve.” He was relieved by our words.
“Heya, dears! Sorry, I kept you waiting.” Arielle greeted us. She wore a sapphire colored frock and let her hair lose.
Steve went to her and whispered something. She blushed.
“Hey beautiful, I got something for you.” I winked.
Arielle waved her finger. “No flirting, boy.”
I grinned and showed the sketch I made of her.
“Oh my! I love this. Steve, don’t I like pretty.” She beamed.
“You are the prettiest, darling. But, we are late for dinner. Stella brought us a delicious cake. I can’t wait to taste it.” Steve replied steering us to the dining room. The rest of the dinner was filled with Arielle’s laughter.
Two years later…
Diana was still a part of Arielle’s life, but so were Stella and me. She still came to the airport regularly. Her eyes shone when she saw us.
The ruby glittered on Stella’s finger as she rushed forward to hug Arielle. Steve accompanied her and announced they would host the engagement party at their place.