Up, Up, and Away

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Mid-September, 2019. Near Seattle, Washington.

“It’s funny, but I don’t want you to go, Morgan,” her therapist said with a warm smile.

“No. I understand. We’ve gotten very close over the last three years,” the woman she’d been working with over that period of time replied.

“We’re not supposed to get attached to our patients, but we’re just human beings with the same wants, needs, and fears as everyone else. You’ve lived through my worst fear, and I have to tell you I admire you for the way you’ve worked through your loss. I really can’t imagine losing a child.”

The therapist quickly added, “And a husband.”

Morgan Graham had just turned 36 two weeks before her nightmare began. It was cold, dark, and rainy when a Washington State Patrolman pulled into her driveway in the Seattle suburb where she, her husband Nick, and their daughter Audrey lived.

She couldn’t recall a single thing the young state trooper told her other than, “I’m very sorry. Both of them were killed instantly.”

That had been four years ago, but it wasn’t the passage of time clouding her memory. It was her brain’s way of protecting her. It had instantly gone into a defensive mode shutting down everything but essential life-sustaining functions.

During those first months after ‘the accident’ as she called it, she’d obviously continued breathing, but everything else was a chore. Occasionally, she was able to eat and drink, and when she was lucky, she might sleep 2-3 hours in a row. But other than that she’d been hollowed out from the inside, and until the last few months, she’d been little more than a shell of her former self.

Nick had provided well for them, and the life insurance money she’d received had allowed her to stay at home at grieve, and after a year of being nearly housebound, had also paid for therapy three times a week for the last three years.

Initially, she couldn’t see where talking and answering questions was doing any good, but her older brother, Hank Thompson, had insisted she keep going. He’d tried to get her to go a month after the accident, and kept at it until his sister gave in a year later. Hank had been there for her like no one else, and through it all, he was the one person on whom she could count no matter what.

So she’d kept going, and about six or seven months ago, she’d had a breakthrough session. It was hard to quantify what that meant, but she left the therapist’s office that day feeling hopeful, and until then, hope had been the one thing she no longer had.

Within a month, she went on a kind of date with a friend of her brother. A month later, she got up the courage to go back to the elementary school where Audrey had been a 1st-grader, and began helping out in the office as a volunteer. While there, she began talking with one of the three male teachers on staff, a nice man around her age, and went out with him several times before realizing they had very little in common.

Just three months after the breakthrough, Morgan started feeling almost normal again. It wasn’t that there wasn’t still a huge, gaping hole in her life. It was more that she’d learned to navigate around it and not look at it whereas it had previously consumed her every waking moment. She would not only look at it but stare into endlessly as though there was some sort of answer at the bottom; a bottom she could never see. But there wasn’t, and now she had the tools to avoid it, and that only added to the sense of renewed hopefulness and optimism she’d been feeling.

Morgan looked at the therapist, Doctor Ann Lee, PhD., who’d become a friend, and replied to her comment about losing her family.

“No. That’s not something I’d recommend.”

That she was now able to say that with a smile on her face spoke volumes about how far she’d come, and as much as her therapist hated to admit it, it was time for the sessions to end.

“Then I believe there’s no reason for you to continue coming here,” the woman told her reluctantly. “But I’d love to stay in touch.”

“We will, Ann. I promise,” Morgan told her.

“So any idea what’s next?”

Morgan smiled and said, “Oh, my. I just turned 40, and there are so many things I want to do. I haven’t made a list yet, but I want to do things that make me feel alive.”

“That doesn’t include bungee jumping, does it?” her therapist asked, only partly kidding.

When Morgan laughed, she smiled, and told her she was glad to know that was what she meant even though Morgan hadn’t answered her verbally.

“Most of all, I’d like to love again. I’d like to really, truly love someone the way I loved my husband and daughter. I have no idea when or where or even how that might happen. All I know is I’m ready to experience that.”

“Well, I have to tell you, you’re a beautiful woman, Morgan, and finding someone won’t be an issue.”

Her patient thanked her for saying that, then said, “Not to state the obvious, but I don’t want to just find someone. I’d want to find that really amazing someone I can’t Betturkey live without. And of course, I’d want him to feel the same way about me, and that might be a very tall order.”

Now her therapist laughed but in a polite way.

“I get what you mean. Men, even nice looking men, are a dime a dozen. Even attractive men with money are out there—not that you’re looking for money. But finding one who has all of the intangible things we women dream about is another thing.”

Morgan loved how she and her therapist nearly always agreed on nearly everything they discussed, at least once they’d gotten to a point where it wasn’t just an endless stream of being asked, “And how does that make you feel?”

“As usual, you and I see the challenge the same way. And even if that never happens, I feel like I’m strong enough again to enjoy life, whatever it may bring my way.”

“Will you be staying here in the Seattle area?”

“I’m not sure. Nick absolutely loved the TV series Breaking Bad. It ended in 2013, and before he was killed, I’m sure he watched it on DVD at least a half dozen times. I watched it with him here and there, and there’s something very appealing to me about the desert.”

“Well, as often as we’ve agreed on things, that isn’t one of them,” her therapist kindly said. “I love the mountains and the green and wouldn’t live anywhere else.”

“It’s nice, but it comes with a cost, and that cost is endless gray skies, cold weather, and raw, drizzly weather.”

“I’m not wild about that, but seeing nothing but sand all day, every day would just about do me in.”

Morgan laughed then brought up the old saying about one man’s trash being another man’s treasure.

Her therapist laughed, too, and said, “Or in this case, a woman’s.”

“Yes. Right,” her long-time patient agreed.

“Well, whatever you decide, I wish you all the best, and I want you to know it’s truly been a pleasure working with you and getting to know you, Morgan.”

“Thank you, Ann. I feel the exactly same way, and I will never forget you or all of the many ways you’ve helped me work through this.”

The therapist stood up, held out her arms, and received a warm hug from the patient and friend she would never forget.

“Take care, Morgan.”

“I will, and you do the same.”

As she closed the door to the office for the last time, that too, felt like a kind of breakthrough moment. It seemed like a figurative door in her life had closed along with the actual door she’d just shut. And, of course, a symbolic door closing entailed a new one opening. So as Morgan Graham opened the glass door of the outer office she’d been to so many times, she stopped on the sidewalk, looked around, and readied herself for the rest of her life.

October 1st, 2019. Albuquerque, New Mexico.

“That was THE most fun I’ve ever had!” one of the passengers told him.

“I’m glad you enjoyed it,” her pilot told her.

“Enjoyed it? That was positively…orgasmic!” she chirped.

“I’m sorry,” one of her friends said to him from just a few inches away. “She uh…she had a few before you took us up, and this is, well…not unexpected.”

The younger man laughed and assured her it wasn’t a problem before saying, “Ah, okay. That would explain why she asked if she could join the ‘mile-high club’ with me during the flight.”

She’d gotten up close and personal when she said it, and he’d smelled the alcohol on her breath, so he’d politely smiled and told her that sounded wonderful except for the fact that there were no rest rooms in a hot air balloon.

Her reply to that shocked the handsome hot air ballon pilot who’d been hit on by his fair share of women.

“We don’t need a room! My friend will look away, so don’t let that stop you!”

A stunned pilot looked over at the woman’s friend who could only shrug.

As the ladies exited the ‘ship’, he thanked them again and wished them a good rest of the day. As he did his post-flight check, he thought back on the history of ballooning in his hometown of Albuquerque and recalled that the first hot air balloon event there took place in 1972. It happened in a parking lot of a local mall where two men gathered 13 balloon pilots together for a flight. Now, some four decades later, the city’s annual festival had grown into the biggest hot air ballon event in the world.

It was five years later when his grandfather, Zayn Webber, Senior, opened a commercial hot air balloon business he called Beautiful Balloons, a name he came up with using the words of the hit song Up, Up, and Away by The 5th Dimension from 1967.

He ran the company until his untimely death in 1990 from a stroke that took his life just minutes after landing a balloon filled with six passengers. His son and the pilot’s father, Zayn Webber, Junior, took over the business and had high hopes that his son, Zayn Webber, III, would do the same. But the youngest member of the trio had other plans. Growing up, Betturkey Giriş Zayn the Third, or Z3, as his friends called him, wanted to spread his wings and see the world.

He’d been told he would go to college for as long as he could remember, and his rather stern father was too intimidating to challenge at the tender age of 18. So after graduating from high school, the youngest Zayn Webber dutifully went to school at the University of New Mexico in his home town where he’d also earned his pilot’s license and balloon certification and regularly flew passengers after turning 18, the youngest age for a commercial balloon pilot.

But when he graduated from college, he was sure enough of himself to finally stand up to his father, and when he announced his decision to fly for the US Air Force, his stoic parent stood there looking at him, stone faced and silent before turning around without saying a word.

Zayn had followed through on his promise, and after graduating from officer training, he reported to flight school, and for the last 3 1/2 years of his five-year obligation, he flew the F-15E Strike Eagle. During those years as an Air Force officer, Zayn spent just over a year during two different deployments flying close air support missions for Army and Marine units in Afghanistan.

Flying was the love of his life. Lieutenant and later Captain Webber was no peacenik, but dropping precision weapons on human beings and blowing them to bits wasn’t—especially when one of them had killed an older woman who was outside at the wrong time in the wrong place. He loved knowing he’d saved American lives, but it ate at him knowing he’d killed an innocent woman along with a dozen or so jihadists during his time there. Even now it didn’t matter to him that they were considered the enemy. The were still human beings, and by the time his five-year obligation ended, he’d had enough. Just a week later he found himself back home in Albuquerque flying for Beautiful Balloons.

To his credit, Zayn, Sr., never once gave his son a hard time about wanting to take five years away from the business. Being a rather austere man, he wasn’t about to say anything like how proud he was of son or even worse, that he envied him for having the strength of character to do what he’d wanted. He was just glad to have his son back home and helping out with a business that continued to grow and thrive.

More than anyone, his mother, Sandra, was thrilled to have her boy back home. It didn’t matter that her ‘baby’ was now 27 years old and stood just a shade over six-feet tall. He would always be her little boy, and she relished every minute she was able to spend with him after five long years of seeing him once or twice during each of those years.

Tragically, he hadn’t been home for more than a month when his father met the same fate as his father had. They’d been sitting down eating dinner when Zayn, Senior, lowered his head. His wife asked if he was okay, and seconds later, he spoke the last words he would ever speak.

“Everything is…spinning around, and I…I feel sick to my stomach. I…I’m just so weak. I don’t think I can even sit up any mo…”

Z3 had his phone out and handed it to his mom and told her to call 911 as he ran around the table and tried administering CPR after realizing his father wasn’t breathing. In spite of his best efforts, by the time paramedics arrived, he was gone. They were required by law to continue CPR until a doctor could formally pronounce him dead, but Zayn knew it was over, and the only thing left to do was take care of his mother.

His sister, Katharine Webber-Kane, was three years older than him and lived with her husband in pleasant subdivision of town. Like her younger brother, she was initially in a state shock, but after the funeral, she was equally committed to helping her mother get through this.

Zayn had lived at home since leaving active duty, and as much he appreciated having a bed, home cooked meals, and a built-in maid in the form of his loving mother, he’d been on his own too long to dependent on anyone and was making plans to move out. But when his father passed away, he agreed to stay for another couple of months until his mother insisted she was strong enough to live on her own.

“As long as you and your sister are here in town, I can handle this,” she’d bravely said.

So for the last two months, he’d been living in a very nice apartment in Nob Hill, part of the main street that ran through the city, and which had once been part of the famous Route 66. The complex where he lived was called ‘Platinum’ and was the epitome of high-end apartment living in the state.

Zayn had saved a ton of money during his time in the Air Force, and he was making more than enough to live comfortably on by taking locals and tourists up for an hour or so in a hot air balloon, something he’d been flying since he was 15.

One had to be 14 to become a hot air balloon pilot, 16 to be a private pilot, and 18 to fly commercially. It wasn’t quite as exhilarating as flying at ‘the speed of heat’ over enemy-controlled territory in a foreign country, but it was still very pleasant and enjoyable. And best of all, no one was ever going to die because of a balloon flying overhead.

He was fortunate to be an attractive man, and it wasn’t uncommon for the women he took up with him to flirt now and then. But the woman who’d shamelessly propositioned him that day was a first.

All those thoughts and more flooded his mind before heading back to the hangar. As he walked, he laughed one more time about the tipsy woman who was 40-something then let it go.

Katharine was Zayn’s only sibling, and she was waiting for him when he walked back into the office.

“How’d it go?” she asked the moment she saw him.

He chuckled then told her he’d have to discuss it in private. There were other customers in the office booking a flight, and as the public face of the company, Katharine understood. When he told her about it later that evening after everyone else left she laughed loudly.

“No way! She…said…that?”

“She did,” he told her as he laughed, too.

“I hate to admit it, but my little brother is kinda hot, so I can’t say I blame her. I just hope when I’m that age, I’m not a lush who throws herself at younger men.”

Zayn laughed again because his sister was a beautiful woman in her own right and she rarely even had a glass of wine. Another reason was that she was quite possibly his best friend in the world and the one person he could trust to tell him the truth no matter how painful it might be.

She was his Goldilocks. His late father didn’t ‘do feelings’, and his mother would immediately agree with anything her ‘darling son’ said or thought, so she was no help at all when it came to objectivity. But Katharine was not only in charge of the business’s marketing and finances, she was an honest broker in every sense of the word.

“So another festival kicks off tomorrow,” Katharine said after the laughter died down and they turned off the lights and set the alarm before heading home.

“I was looking at the schedule. We’ve got a busy week ahead of us,” Zayn said as they walked outside together.

“No kidding. We’re pretty much booked solid. I think I’ve got a grand total of three slots left for the entire week.”

“That’s not a bad thing, right?” her brother said cheerfully.

“Hey. I’m not complaining. I’m just giving it to you straight.”

Zayn laughed again then told her he was going home for the night.

“Oh, yeah. To your swanky new…Platinum Pad.”

“Hey. What can I say? I know what I want.”

Katharine laughed because her brother did know what he wanted. Since going to college he’d done pretty much whatever he wanted, and no one had tried to stop him, and Zayn truly enjoyed life and the freedom having a little money and some good DNA brought him.

And because he wasn’t much of a drinker, either, most of that freedom consisted of women. A lot of women. Katharine had no idea how many there’d been, but she knew it was more than she could count on her fingers and toes, and the truth was, she didn’t want to know. The Air Force had slowed him down a little bit, but only a little. And now that he was back in town and living in the nicest place in the city, she was pretty sure that more than a few cute co-eds and beautiful women in their early 20s had graced his bed.

She’d had her share of boyfriends over the years, too, but she could count the ones with whom she’d been intimate on one hand and have a finger or two to spare. And after having met someone who swept her off her feet three years ago, she had no interest in ever adding to the count.

Her husband, Zach, another ‘Z’ in the…zany…Webber family mix, was the be-all, end-all of her world, and she still couldn’t wait to go home to him each night knowing he’d been there since getting off work himself at 5pm. And most evenings, Zach would have some kind of delicious dinner waiting for her, so for those reasons and many more, she considered herself a very lucky woman.

“Yes. Yes, you do,” she told her brother. “So go home, get some rest, and I’ll see you bright and early tomorrow.”

“Rest? What’s that?” Zayn said with a laugh as he told her ‘goodbye’.

He’d met a senior from University of New Mexico earlier that morning and gotten her number then called her from from a thousand feet a few hours later. Between that and asking her to stop by his apartment at Platinum for a drink around 8 o’clock was more than enough to win her over. Of course, had he been 5′ 7″ and 200 pounds, none of that would have mattered, but he wasn’t so it was extremely likely he’d get lucky again sometime around midnight.

Zayn had enough time to go home, shower, grab a bite to eat, then gear up for what would undoubtedly be ‘a hot time in the old town, or rather…the new apartment…tonight’.

By 1am, the hot time was over, and Zayn was alone and sound asleep for the next five hours, more than enough to recharge his batteries for the upcoming first day of the annual balloon festival. Another quick shower and shave and a bowl of cereal and he was more than ready for his first flight which was lifting off at 8am.

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