Patrick McNaughton was sweating. Under the circumstances, he expected nothing less. What started as warmth at the back of his neck had made its way across his chest and down to his palms. The metallic taste on his tongue was another part of the panic spiral that ensued anytime he got near an airplane. If the paralyzing uncertainty of putting his life in the hands of a random pilot wasn’t enough, the idea of one missing bolt sending him whirling toward the earth from 30,000 feet finished his hot-then-cold terror.
Whenever possible, Patrick opted to drive or take a train, but he’d been in promotion and marketing his entire adult life. Flying was part of the job, so he traveled alone. That way he could whimper in private or drink until he passed out without anyone realizing his weakness. His strangling fear. It wasn’t exactly a fear, he’d rationalized a few years back. It was a condition, something to do with his equilibrium, or maybe it was his brain.
Whatever the case, the minute he entered the airport, either to pick someone up or take off himself, this happened. Stomach lurching, dizzy, prepared to use the little baggies in the seat-back compartment—the ones most people used for flavorless gum or as a trash bag while they cleaned out their purse or briefcase. Patrick had deposited his lunch in those bags more times than he cared to count, but he had a routine. A system he’d developed years ago to get himself through any flight no matter how ugly things got.
This trip was different.
He needed to make it from his hometown of Petaluma, California to Washington, DC for the Craft Brewers Conference. It happened once a year and was an enormous networking opportunity. He was giving a workshop titled Building the Brand. Wolf, Foghorn Brewery’s sustainability manager, was responsible for two other workshops. Months ago when they’d been planning this thing, Patrick was prepared to offer his usual excuses regarding traveling. He liked to use his frequent flyer points, he was picky about seating and would handle the reservation himself, blah, blah. Anything he could come up with to ensure he took the trip on the ground or alone. Before he had a chance, Wolf, who was eager to impress, booked the flights for both of them. Together. Patrick never did together. Not in a plane. Not even with his brothers.
He’d thought about changing his flight at least a dozen times, but in the wake of Foghorn’s new Tap House construction, finances were tight. There was no way to say, “I’ll be using a few hundred from travel to cover a flight change because I can’t get my head in line long enough to fly with Wolf.” Even if money were no object, if his brothers knew flying still freaked Patrick out, they’d never let him live it down. Fears were for kids, and none of them were young anymore.
The idea of bailing altogether had occurred to him a few weeks back, but this was the biggest conference of the year for independent brewers. Last year it was in Las Vegas, and Patrick had convinced his oldest brother, Boyd, that they needed a road trip. Boyd bought it and they didn’t fly. There was no way in hell Wolf was going to road trip all the way to Washington, DC. Besides, the first year they’d gone as spectators. This year they had their own booth. It was a big deal. Up until a few months ago, Patrick was still focused on their local markets, but Foghorn was ready for more, whether Boyd realized it or not. It was time for them to grow, and Patrick hoped this convention would open doors. There might even be some investors looking to help them expand faster than their current three-year plan. Three years was an eternity is their business. He needed to get to Washington, DC. Two little plane rides, one there and one back, without crying like a baby or throwing up in Wolf’s lap.
Shit. Wolf of all people. The guy didn’t simply have a No Fear sticker on the back of his truck; his said No Fucking Fear. Patrick swallowed back another unwelcome wave of nausea and placed his hands on the cool metal door inside the bathroom stall. Was it necessary to emphasize a statement like No Fear?
Patrick drove a Porsche 911. Wolf drove a Land Rover Defender. Lately, Patrick had been internally debating a more comprehensive multivitamin. Wolf was stranded on a “guys’ trip” in the middle of the desert and drank his own urine. Patrick had tried to mask his look of confusion last week when Wolf told the story, sunburned and ripped like he’d crawled out of some action movie, but didn’t think he had pulled it off. The truth was, Patrick was never going to bond with a guy who laughed at the memory of drinking piss. Did that make Patrick less of a man? Maybe. He wasn’t going to ask Wolf that question, nor was he going to tell him he was afraid to fly.
Patrick owned Foghorn Brewery with two of his brothers. He was the answer man, the go-to guy for all things regarding their brand and their image. That image needed to be maintained. Standing with his back now against the bathroom door, his stomach turned. He closed his eyes and wondered why the pill he’d dissolved under his tongue per Dr. Scarp’s instructions wasn’t working. His doctor assured him while he scribbled out the prescription that the medication would put Patrick in a “lazy slumber.”
He was due to meet Wolf in less than an hour and was nowhere near slumber. God, his mouth felt like a cotton rag. He’d shown up at the airport two hours early to eat and medicate in the hopes that by the time Wolf arrived, he would be close to normal. Buzzed, but not a blithering idiot.
Patrick felt panic creep around the starch of his collar. He was the face, the firm handshake of their livelihood, and that came with responsibility. To their potential customers and their employees. He was an example, a leader. Guys like him didn’t have childish fears and if they did, they made certain no one knew about them.
Breathe, idiot. Inhale, exhale.
Still no lazy or slumber, only the marching band pounding of his pulse. Managing to turn the little silver circle on the bathroom stall door, Patrick wheeled his bag toward the bank of shiny sinks. After another deep breath, he rolled up the sleeves of his shirt and splashed water on his face. Holding onto the edge of the sink with one hand, he reached for a paper towel with the other. He dabbed his face and counted to ten. His mom had once told him that counting was how she survived raising four boys. At this point, he was willing to try anything because if relief didn’t happen soon, he was going to use his default: alcohol.
Leaving the bathroom, he thought about the meditation app West, his youngest brother and a reformed movie star, had downloaded onto his phone after sharing that Patrick was “too uptight.” What the hell was that called again? He scrawled through his phone.
Headspace, that was it. He remembered the big orange dot and that it had a fear-of-flying meditation. After a few more taps, a British man’s voice filled Patrick’s wireless headphones.
“Even if we know that logically we are going to be safe, we will still have anxious thoughts,” the voice guy said.
Great, guy. Let’s jump to the part where you tell me how to keep down my lunch.
Patrick checked his watch as he walked toward the A Gates, his jacket neatly over the same arm wheeling his suitcase. Thirty minutes left, still no slumber. Christ, he was running out of time.
“At any moment in time, you can manage the anxious thoughts. To begin, find a quiet space you can be without being disturbed,” the voice said.
As he tried to swallow, Patrick knew the meditation guy meant a fluffy chair or a secluded corner when he said quiet space. He knew meditation didn’t involve a barstool, but he had twenty-five minutes to pull it together, and Scotch suddenly seemed like his reliable option. He tapped his phone, silencing the Headspace guy, and set it face down on the black lacquer of the Sky Bar. Flagging down the bartender, Patrick ordered two fingers of what he knew would be crap Scotch, but he didn’t care.
It could be argued that he should have read the sticker on the prescription bottle that instructed him to never mix medication with alcohol. Or that he should have given the British guy more than two minutes. He should have been patient and if all else failed, shared his phobia with Wolf. Those were all good arguments for why he should not have sat down at the bar. Unfortunately, Patrick couldn’t hear any of them over the buzz of panic. As the warm liquid slipped down his throat, he closed his eyes and felt the instant gratification of poor decisions.
Aspen Pane had a run in her stocking. To make matters worse, the granola bar that she’d put in her purse as a midmorning snack melted. It was January—melting wasn’t supposed to happen in January. Maybe it was too close to her phone?
While navigating the turns and traffic in airport long-term parking, she managed to wipe her hands and wrap the melted mess in one of the extra napkins she kept in the center console of her car. Outside of the time it would take to remedy the run in her stocking, Aspen hoped she’d have time to pick up something else to eat. The line through security would need to move quickly.
She didn’t normally skip lunch, but she’d put her half sandwich and container of kale salad back in the refrigerator when Wolf texted her before five o’clock in the morning. He’d broken his arm climbing a boulder last night. Aspen realize climbing boulders was a thing, but she woke up right away when he added that he was in the ER waiting for a cast and was not going to make his flight with Patrick.
Aspen got out of bed, made some coffee, and held out hope, but thirty minutes later, he texted that the doctor was “sending him in for pictures.” Turned out he’d also broken ribs. Aspen called to cancel his flight. At least he could use the funds another time. She’d remember to mention that to Patrick when he noticed the last-minute flight charge, and he would notice. Then he’d slip into a budget coma, but she had no choice.
Aspen was the only one who knew Wolf’s workshops. She’d written most of the materials with him. Sustainability was her emphasis when she got her MBA at Berkeley. She had some credentials to speak on the subject. She certainly didn’t look like Wolf, no one did, but the Craft Brewers Conference and Patrick were going to have to accept her as a smaller and less hairy substitute.
Aspen had thought about texting Patrick. She probably should have let him know about Wolf and the boulder. Let him know she was filling in, but she didn’t. She’d wished Wolf well and told him she would handle things.
Patrick had seemed particularly anxious about this trip. She didn’t know if it was the added expense of the Tap House remodel or an amped-up version of his usual neuroses, but he was on edge the last few days. She would need at least one glass of wine before she’d be able to listen to him rant about the extra money Wolf’s fall had cost Foghorn Brewery. She would remind him it was a business expense, a tax write-off for the new year, but she’d been working with Patrick for close to five years now, and she knew he’d see the money first.
He saw money first. That’s why she’d waited to tell him, she rationalized now as she finally found a spot in the garage. She chose instead to applaud her orderly life that allowed her to pack and be at the airport in less than four hours. She would explain everything to Patrick after she got through security. Then hopefully she would find something to replace her granola bar. Maybe even have a glass of wine on the plane.
Parking her car, Aspen checked her hair and her face in the rearview mirror to confirm none of the melted chocolate was left behind. Once satisfied she was professional and appropriate, she got her suitcase out of the back of her recently purchased black LR4 and clicked the fob on her keychain. After tossing the balled-up napkin into the silver trash bin off the Terminal 4 elevator, she checked her phone. She had forty minutes before she was due to meet Patrick at the gate. Plenty of time for a quick change, security, and a portable and hopefully healthy lunch.
She sighed and slid her phone into the outside pocket of her purse as the doors dinged and opened on the floor marked with the All Gates placard. Aspen appreciated a schedule and loved it when her planning paid off—when some minor disaster was averted because she’d thought ahead. Consistency and direction had been a high on her life list since two weeks after her tenth birthday.
It was funny how she rarely remembered things before her father left their family, but everything that followed was somehow vivid. Maybe funny was the wrong word. Strange or odd, screwed up would be a clear descriptor, but she was trying to steer clear of negativity. She was on a two-day sunshine streak. Her brother Thad was forever telling her to find the bright spot in things. If he sent her one more inspirational quote with a lion or a woman on top of a mountain, she was going to tell Vienna, Aspen’s friend and now Thad’s incredible live-in girlfriend, to hide his phone. The guy was a one-man team-building exercise. How was it possible they came from the same parents?
Checking her watch, she wheeled her bag into the nearest restroom and eyed the large stall toward the back. Right as she reached for the door handle, a woman with a baby strapped to her chest and a little boy in a Spiderman T-shirt came bursting out of the stall as if rocket propelled.
The woman was shoving what appeared to be a laminated blanket into one of the bags hanging off her slight frame.
“Sorry.” She pushed her hair out of her face with barely a smile. “That’s enough soap,” she said to her little Spiderman, who was now at one of the sinks and navigating the automatic dispenser like a pro.
Aspen could never get those damn things to work. She smiled and stepped back to give the woman more room to maneuver.
The mom let out a sigh and moved to her son in that way moms often did when they had no energy left for anyone or anything other than getting their children from A to B. Aspen didn’t have kids of her own, and neither did Thad, but their cousins and the people who worked at the stables where her mom trained horses did. She and her brother had been around kids enough to give them some insight.
Aspen might not know how to work a stroller, but she was no stranger to hard work, inside and outside of the home. After her dad left, and the newly three-person Pane family first moved to Petaluma, her mom worked two jobs prior to landing the one she now had at Bantam Stables. The first couple of years were tough. Aspen and her brother grew up faster than most junior high kids. It must have been difficult for her mom too. Aspen rarely thought about her childhood anymore, and never in the context of the challenges her mom might have faced. She was staring as Spiderman dried his hands with a gigantic wad of paper towels and then asked his mom if he could sit with the pilot on the flight. Aspen blinked and wheeled her suitcase into the stall.
After she hung her purse on the hook, she was left with unwelcomed feelings brought on by a complete stranger. The stall next to her flushed, and Aspen redirected her thoughts back to her press for time. If nothing else, years of Deepak Chopra had taught her she was in control of her mind. She removed her backup pair of stockings from the zipper pouch in her bag, leaned against the stall, and slipped off one of her heels.
Aspen had several pet peeves that she was working on ignoring, but stockings, especially black stockings, were not allowed to have holes, ever. Granted, it was up above her hemline. Her keys had slipped out of her hand, almost dropping between her seats, and they’d snagged her stockings when she barely saved them. The run was in that precarious spot where someone might catch a glimpse when she sat on the plane. She shouldn’t care, but Aspen left nothing to chance when it came to her collected appearance. Her dry cleaner knew her by name, as did his husband the tailor. Her personal budget included line items for nails, hair, a monthly massage, and facials.
She had grown up rummaging through the racks at discount stores and painting her own toenails, not well if memory served. The moment her mother said, “As long as you and your brother keep this place clean and you don’t sleep through your alarm,” Aspen got a job.
Having her own money quickly became an obsession. She worked and saved. Picked up extra shifts on weekends and holidays. From her first stocking job at the hardware store at thirteen to the waitress and coffee shop jobs that followed, she pinched until she could afford a reliable car, clothes that fit, and shampoo. God, she could still remember the smell of her first bottle of salon shampoo.
Sliding the silk stocking up her leg and attaching it at her thigh, Aspen moved to the other leg. She liked nice things, but she’d also worked her ass off. Earned a full ride to college and worked full-time through her bachelor’s and her master’s. Work paid off. Of that, Aspen was sure.
She slipped her foot into her heel and smoothed her skirt back into place.
“Better,” she said quietly to herself and put her bag over her shoulder. Holes were like scratches on a painting it had taken her years to complete. Holes were not allowed. She checked her watch. Twenty minutes. Offering up a little prayer that Patrick was in a good mood, she checked herself in the mirror and wheeled her bag back out to the sinks. Did Patrick enjoy flying? Of course he did, she thought. Was there anything Patrick didn’t do with ease and charm? He was probably the type who had fancy headphones and called the flight attendants by name.