Flying with Strangers
A Short Story by Kate Kelsen
Copyright © 2019. All Rights Reserved
In the hours leading up to his flight, Jeff relished in the freedom of procrastination. Time had dragged on blissfully slow, enabling his hesitancy. But the hours and minutes ticked by nonetheless. Eventually there was no time left between him and the aircraft that awaited him. He had gotten this far. He’d bought the ticket. Time was ticking. He could do this. He had to. He knew it, deep inside. He was getting on that plane.
He scanned the other passengers in the area. You could never tell who it could be. That guy with the red face, perhaps? Why was he wearing a sweater in summer? In his mind’s eye, Jeff imagined the explosives strapped to the man’s hairy chest, under the layers of cotton and wool.
“Ma’am, we can’t let you take it on board.”
“Oh, come on! It’s plastic!”
Jeff watched the woman ahead of him arguing with security over the children’s plate set.
“We can’t let you take it on board,” the security staff patiently reiterated.
“But it’s a gift for my daughter!”
Maybe it was her, Jeff thought. Surely she wouldn’t make it so obvious. Then again, maybe she was panicking. She’d been sprung.
Jeff’s cheeks flushed hot, and he felt the flutter in his chest as his heartrate spiked. He clenched his teeth. He just wanted to get on the plane and get it over with. The boarding call for the flight was announced over the PA system. Finally the woman gave in, surrendering the plate set, snatching up her bag and storming out of sight into the departure lounge. The line started moving again. Once he cleared the body scanner, Jeff proceeded to the gate and joined the queue of passengers. The crew member smiled as she checked his boarding pass, and wished him a nice flight. The walls closed in as he followed the gateway down to the entrance of the aircraft. Jeff’s chest felt tight and his breathing shallow. The cabin crew member checked his boarding pass again and directed him toward his seat. Jeff looked up the way; his stomach sank inside him when he spotted the woman from before occupying the window seat next to his aisle seat. He sat down and made himself comfortable, fixing his gaze firmly on the seat in front of him. He was determined avoid eye contact with his temporary neighbour. He was not interested in getting to know her. Her body language was jittery; she looked keenly around the cabin, jiggling her leg, rubbing her hands over themselves. He could feel her looking at him, but he was in no mood for conversation, especially with her, and he did his best to make his intention as visually obvious as possible.
Speeding down the runway, Jeff felt the weight of his body drop downwards as they lifted off the ground.
“You a nervous flyer?”
Jeff cringed inside. He had to respond, and he did so with a nod. He hoped his lack of a verbal response would ward her off. It didn’t.
“Where are you headed?”
“Me too. I was spending a week with my sister. We were supposed to be having a girl’s getaway, just the two of us. My partner was looking after our daughter, Edie, but my neighbour called yesterday and said he had left Edie with her…”
Emma’s voice trailed off. She looked down at her hands.
“I’m all she’s got now. I don’t know what I’m going to do, really.”
“I’m sorry to hear it…” he stammered.
It was at this point that Jeff realised he had broken his fixed gaze with the seat in front of him. Emma looked up at him and made eye contact before he could divert his gaze.
“No, I’m sorry. I hardly know you, and I’m divulging my problems onto you.” Emma sighed. “My sister gave me this gorgeous plate set to give to Edie. They wouldn’t let me bring it on the plane; I had to leave it behind. A ‘security risk’ apparently.”
“I should have put it in my checked luggage. I forgot. Everything happened so quickly. It was a beautiful gift, too.”
Now it was Emma avoiding eye contact with Jeff. She turned her face away in an attempt to hide the tear that trickled down her cheek. She quickly wiped it away with the tip of her finger.
“I’m sorry,” she whimpered. “I’m sorry, this is very embarrassing.”
“It’s okay, really,” Jeff said with awkward stiffness. “I’m sorry you lost the gift.”
Emma summoned the attention of a cabin crew member and requested some water, which she gulped down, gasping with breathlessness.
Having purged her emotional dilemma onto Jeff, Emma appeared overcome with exhaustion. She said very little for the remainder of the journey, even dozing off for a few minutes. Over the next two hours, Jeff thought about Emma, and the glimpse of her life she had shared with him. At first she had come across very bright and bubbly, shielding from sight the turmoil that was unfolding behind her warm exterior. Her predicament played on his mind, etched itself onto his conscience. He wasn’t the type to offer emotional support. That was his problem; it had always been his problem. It was why his wife had left him. He had loved her so much, but didn’t know how to show it. Hi encounter with Emma had sparked a sense of compassion inside him, something he hadn’t felt for a long time.
The captain’s voice came over the PA system, advising the cabin crew and passengers that they were preparing for landing. The aircraft shuddered with turbulence as it descended through the clouds. Jeff sat stiff in his seat, his knuckles white and his palms sweaty as he gripped the ends of his armrests. He closed his eyes and rested his head back. It was now or never.
There was one last jolt as the wheels hit the tarmac, and the force of the aircraft’s breaking system pulled Jeff back in his seat, and then thrust him forward, finally releasing him as the aircraft slowed to a crawl. The clicking of seatbelts could be heard throughout the cabin the moment the plane stopped moving. Some passengers preferred to remain seated and wait for the first rush to pass. Others stood straight away, and Jeff was one of them, keen to get ahead of the crowd and disembark quickly.
“Thanks for the chat, Jeff,” said Emma.
“No problem,” said Jeff. “Good luck with everything.”
Jeff exited the plane and made his way swiftly past the other passengers in the arrivals lounge, through the terminal and out to the taxi rank.
Jeff sat on the end of the bed in his hotel room; his gaze was fixed on the window, but his mind was elsewhere. First it had been the layoffs of pilots. Jobless life had been hard, and working in a lower paid job was harder. One day he’d come home to find half the contents of the house gone, the rest left in a scattered mess. His wife’s clothes were missing from her side of the wardrobe. She was gone, along with their son. She just wasn’t going to take it anymore. He remembered the numbness of it, and then the pain that had come later, when he realised they weren’t coming back. The pain had festered away inside him, agony turning to anger.
He removed his jacket, vest and shirt. From the shirt pocket he removed a small wallet knife. He had gone to the airport so many times, but had never had the guts to go get on a plane. Today was as far as he’d ever gotten, and he still hadn’t gone through with it. He wasn’t sure if what he was feeling was relief, or disappointment, or both.
The downward spiral of his life had driven him to the edge of a knife’s blade. It had all started with the airline, and he was determined to make them pay. But not Emma. Not little Edie. They shouldn’t have to pay. Edie needed her mother more than ever right now. Emma had been embarrassed about blabbing her predicament to Jeff, but she would never know that it had not only saved her life, but those of every soul on that plane.
Thank-you for reading my story!