WORDS UNDER RED
by Markus Diersbock

"...quite touching...I was crying at the end, it was so beautiful."

"It reminded me of James Patterson's love story."
 

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Words Under Red

(This is the original short story the novel is based on)

 

Maybe...

Maybe, if she stared at the mirror long enough... through the tears and the redness... then backward behind her eyes, and into the shelter of a warm thought... she might just stop the endlessly repeating words, she’d read only an hour ago...

 

* * *

 

"Good evening, I'm Katie Johansen and this is News Night…"

The newscast began as it did every night, but at this hour there were always more crew on the floor and more viewers watching their screens. Not because of any breaking story or new Hollywood scandal that might be reported. All eyes were fixed on Katie. With her arctic eyes and bound black hair, she was obviously gorgeous, but also more. Unlike most of the talking heads found in television news, Katie wrote and produced many of her segments, all of her interviews, and hosted a political roundtable on Sunday mornings.

"…But when asked, they repeated ‘No comment’…"

Katie had come to the network three years earlier after a stint as a foreign correspondent for the "other network". She spoke four languages, liked the travel, the people, the assignments, but moved back to the States to settle down with her new husband, Joseph, an international banker with a thick Boston accent. She interviewed him one cold day in Zurich. They went for coffee, for dinner, and were engaged six months later.

"…She agreed with the President's proposal, but said that further negotiations…"

She loved working at the network and would usually arrive early, check the wires, meet with producers, talk to the writers; anything to guarantee a smooth show. She would walk from make-up to the desk at five minutes before Air, sit, check her screens, adjust her earpiece, memorize the first few lines on the prompter, and then she was on.

"...Two Navy fighter pilots were killed this morning when their F-15 fighter jets collided during a routine training maneuver in Northern California. It is unknown at this time what caused the accident. The names of the two pilots involved in the incident are Lieutenant Kenneth Jonas of Denver, Colorado and Lieutenant Chase…"

Katie stumbled.

"…and Lieutenant…"

The Control Room went silent. The crew snapped to the Director and then back at the wall of monitors.

"Katie, are you alright?" came a voice in her earpiece.

"Ah…"

She stared at the prompter, tears welling. The Director cut to a commercial.

Katie got up, freed herself from the monitor, and dashed toward her office. She was met halfway by the Director.

"Katie, what's the matter?"

She pushed past him, her voice and body trembling.

"I know one of the pilots. Please, Keith, have Peter finish for me. I'm sorry."

She moved through her door, swinging it closed behind her. Beyond the glass, he watched her grab the phone, and with a quick turn he darted back to the Control Room.

 

* * *

 

The night sky was a downpour and the wipers barely kept up, as Katie merged onto the highway heading for home. She sobbed the whole drive; teeth clenched and eyes blinded, body shaking in uncontrollable spasms as if she had fallen through ice and might succumb to the last throes. She wanted to call Joseph, but her energy was focused solely on keeping the car on the road. Finally, she arrived, clicked the remote, and drove into the garage. In the kitchen she dialed her assistant at the office and took a deep breath.

"Janice, please book me on the next flight to San Jose and call me back with the info. I'm home packing. I know...I'm fine...thanks."

Katie returned the receiver and walked straight to the bedroom. She entered the walk-in, reached up and tossed out some empty shoe boxes, and brought down a satin hatbox. She moved slowly to the bed, staring at the top, as she set it down, lifting the lid. Brushing papers and pictures aside, she worked her way through the box until she came upon a small red envelope. Her eyes filled and her hands began to tremble as she opened the envelope and removed a small bit of colored paper. Her left hand cupped her eyes as if to dam the tears from spilling over and flooding the note in her right. She glanced at the handwriting, dropped the page, and stumbled to the sink.

The cold water hitting her face helped the nausea, but she was still too dizzy to reach for a towel. She gripped the marble and stared through the mirror… seeing nothing.

 

* * *

 

"Here you are, Ms. Johansen," the flight attendant said as she set the club soda down on the center tray.

"Thank you." Even with her dark sunglasses, Katie was easily recognizable. Running through the terminal, she had just made the Red Eye. She sipped and exhaled, opened the cloth bag, and removed the shades and earplugs. She retrieved a mirror from her purse and checked her swollen lids. I can handle this. I have to keep it together. She inserted the earplugs, slid on the shades and reclined the chair, raising the footrest. She was exhausted and hoped to sleep for at least a portion of the six hours.

 

* * *

 

Softly tapping Katie's shoulder, the flight attendant whispered, "Ms. Johansen, we are starting our descent, please bring your chair upright." The sun was up and she felt rested, but being awake just made her aware of why she was even on the flight.

When they landed, Katie walked through the terminal toward Baggage Claim. She walked in a daze, staring forward, without eye contact. No one pointed, although many recognized her, but her usually cheerful manner was muted behind dark glasses.

 

* * *

 

She checked into the hotel and made a few calls. The wake would be this evening and the funeral on Saturday. She drew a hot bath and got in, submerged a small towel under the steaming water, wrung and furled it, and covered her eyes. The tension in her neck and back slowly dissipated into the warm water. After the bath she took a quick nap and awoke at 4pm to get dressed.

She arrived at the wake at 6pm and walked among the guests who stood in small groups, eating from paper plates. She was recognized by many but didn't see a familiar face in sight.

"Little Katie?" came a voice from behind. 

Katie turned and her eyes fell on a face from her memory.

"Well, I guess you're not so little, anymore!"

"Oh, Mrs. McCready, I am so sorry. I'm sick with grief. I heard just last night and flew right out." 

She took Katie into her arms. "I know, dear, we are all, still, in a bit of shock.” She pulled back holding Katie’s hands. “He would have been so happy that you would come here, you being so busy and all. You know, he did confide that he watched you on the television regularly aboard the ship. The boys kidded him, of course, but he never told them that he knew you. He would just sit and smile."

"But, why didn't Chase ever try to contact me?"

"Oh, child, he didn't want to bother you. He said that he was in a different part of your life -- another time, another place. He was so proud of you. I'm proud of the two of you; you've both done very well. Don't be sad, he loved being a pilot. The danger, he said, made life that much more exciting. That boy was just like his father!"

Mrs. McCready pointed to a long table on the other side of the room. "Now, go and help yourself to some food, you're far too skinny!", and she was off, back to the kitchen to grab another platter.

Katie moved about the crowded room and listened to the various conversations. No one was sad, really; everyone almost seemed happy as they told tales of their crewmate, their friend, their son, their brother, and husband. Katie listened as if she was hearing voices reciting entries from a journal: Chase broke up fights, lent money, bailed his drunk buddies out of jail, helped his sisters with their boy problems, proposed on his knees at the top of a ski slope in Germany, and spent all of his free time with his daughter on the swings in the park. He was the guy you could always count on. He knew how to have a good time, but also when the work needed to get done. He never complained and his smile was infectious.

By midnight the gathering was still in full swing, but Katie was tired. Before she left, Katie asked Mrs. McCready if it would be alright if she said a few words at the funeral. This is why she had come and these words would be the most important she would ever say. 

Back in her room under the thick comforter, she turned to the nightstand and set the red envelope against the base of the lamp, and gazed upon it as she switched off the light.

 

* * *

 

It was the usual sunny California day. The church was grand. Inside were friends, family, and crew. Black cloth armbands and uniforms throughout. Large flower arrangements filled the front and surrounded the coffin. The funeral had been underway for over an hour. There was ceremony, military protocol, and various people had gotten up to speak. Katie was next. She removed the red envelope from her purse, stood up, and made her way to the podium. She set the envelope down and looked out at all of the faces… seeing not one.

"I met Chase when we were both in the same sixth-grade class together. He was very shy and a bit clumsy. He liked to read a lot about insects, birds, airplanes, rockets; anything that could fly. And he liked to memorize big words -- the bigger, the better. I guess he was kind of a nerd." Katie let slip a nervous giggle and the rest of the church laughed. The levity pushed her forward.

"Back then I was painfully shy, myself. I was tall and gangly, and wasn't anything to look at. I got teased often, and sometimes was even hit by the boys and the bigger girls. Chase and I were always the last picked when teams were chosen for afternoon basketball and dodge ball. We both were horrible at them, anyway, and decided early on just to sit out over at the swing set by ourselves during recess and lunch. Chase would talk about wanting to be a fighter pilot or an astronaut. We would tell each other stories about all of the worldly adventures we would have when we grew up." The faces smiled.

"In grade school, before Valentine's Day, all of the students would go to the local 5 & 10 to buy a box of assorted cards. They looked more like small paper with pictures on them. You would take them home and write out one of your classmate's names on each card. The popular kids would write little notes, hearts, and XOXO's to each other and would drop a small candy heart into the envelope, but for us, they barely remembered our names. Since Chase was a boy, I was sure he didn't want any mushiness, so I just stuffed his envelope full of candy hearts, which he so happily inhaled." The faces laughed and then she slowed her pace, "Then, Chase handed me my Valentine..."

"I opened the red envelope and slipped out the paper inside." She began to tear and the faces stared. "I read his note and couldn't speak. I just stared at him as he ate the candy hearts. I wasn't aware of anything outside of us and that moment."

"In my bed that evening, I whispered his words over and over until I fell asleep. My Valentine had filled his tummy and his had filled my heart."

"Chase moved away a few months later when his father got stationed in Germany. I never saw him again but kept his Valentine to this day. Whenever I got teased or hit and came home crying, I would go into my drawer and pull out the red envelope and read the words inside." She straightened her back.

"In my junior year of high school boys started to notice me. At university I got offers to model. When this happens most people treat you nicely, but others...not...not so nice."

Katie looked down at the front row; Chase's mother, father, two sisters, wife, and little girl.

"Anything bad that had happened in school, my career, or my personal life I could always pull out that little red envelope and it would make me strong." Her tears came faster.

"The person I am today began with Chase. He showed me there are people who can be kind, and that gave me the confidence in school that led me to be a journalist, which in turn led me to meet my husband, and fulfilling all of my dreams."

She rubbed the envelope in her hands.

"That little boy, who years ago had let me be his friend, has had a profound effect on my life. But, I never got to tell him. I never got to thank him. That..."

Katie looked back at the photograph of Chase on the stand. She focused on his smile, that same smile he’d had as a little boy. Her eyes moved to the coffin and her heart jumped -- she inhaled deeply to keep it in her chest. "Chase, that will always be my biggest regret."

She exhaled, "But, I still have your words."

Katie lifted the red envelope and the faces followed. Folding back the flap, she gradually removed the small card within, and slowly began...

 

Before a butterfly becomes a butterfly,

it begins its life as a caterpillar.

 

The caterpillar is ugly, strange, and awkward.

It's ignored, taunted, and even abused.

 

But, then the caterpillar transforms itself into a butterfly.

 

The butterfly is beautiful, magical, and graceful.

It's admired, inspires, and treated as special.

 

It's strange that no one ever remembers the caterpillar inside…

 

Katie, right now everybody sees you as the caterpillar,

but one day you'll show them all. You will be the butterfly.

 

And I'll be smiling that I knew it all along.

You were always the butterfly.