Thirty minutes after takeoff, I realized the old man sitting next to me had died. We hit some turbulence, and his hand fell from the armrest onto my right leg. I waited, expecting the old man to pick his arm back up, but his eyes remained closed, his head stayed cocked back, and the backside of his hand continued to rest on my lap.
Fiction by Cara Albert
Thirty minutes after takeoff, I realized the old man sitting next to me had died. We hit some turbulence, and his hand fell from the armrest onto my right leg. I waited, expecting the old man to pick his arm back up, but his eyes remained closed, his head stayed cocked back, and the backside of his hand continued to rest on my lap.
“Sir,” I began, but stopped when I noticed his ashy skin and slack jaw. Large pores dotted his upper cheeks like freckles. His withered lips were cracked open by an inch. I leaned closer but couldn’t hear any breathing. His chest made no movement.
I remembered a mirror trick that people used in movies and TV shows. The one where they put a reflective surface in front of someone’s nose or mouth, then waited to see if it would fog up. I didn’t have a mirror on me, so I reached for my phone in my pocket and held the blank, black screen close to his mouth, praying for condensation.
Not now. Not fucking now.
I wasn’t even supposed to be in economy. The Australian branch where I was transferring to had paid for a business-class ticket on my fifteen-hour flight to Sydney. The seat was wide and padded with soft blue cushions. A crisp pillow and fleece blanket sat atop it—waiting for me.
My ex-girlfriend, Kookaburra, grew accustomed to the luxuries of first-class when she started dating me. I could admit that I’d become dependent on this kind of treatment as well. Her name wasn’t really Kookaburra, but I loved granting her nicknames, no matter how much they annoyed her, and the one that always stuck was Kookaburra. She didn’t understand the wit behind that name, but she also didn’t see how small and birdlike her features were. The way her nose pointed out like a beak. Her penetrative blue eyes that darted around like they were hunting for prey. Her arms that extended out slightly as she walked, almost as though she were about to take flight.
“Sir,” said a flight attendant. A young couple stood behind her. “I apologize for the interruption. There was an error with this couple’s tickets. One of them was given the seat here next to you, and one of them is seated in economy.”
“That’s unfortunate,” I said. She explained that the flight was completely booked, and there was nowhere else for the couple to sit together.
I knew where this was going, and for a moment I was tempted to be a dick about the whole situation. It was almost 10.30 p.m., takeoff was in twenty minutes, and I wanted to stretch my legs and drift off as we soared west, away from San Francisco.
“So,” she continued, “we were hoping you’d consider trading seats with one of them and move to economy.”
I stared at the young couple. They couldn’t have been older than twenty-two or twenty-three, making me almost twice their age.
“That’s fine I guess,” I told them. The couple thanked me repeatedly as they stuffed their carry-ons into the overhead bins. The flight attendant walked me to my new seat in economy, assuring me that I’d be reimbursed for what I spent on the business-class ticket. I didn’t tell her that the seat was being paid for by my company. I liked feeling like the hero.
She stopped at Row 29 and gestured toward an empty middle seat on the right side. It was lined with an ugly, gray vinyl material. The kind that sticks to your thighs when it gets too hot. The pillow that came with this seat was thin and stiff, and the blanket could have been replaced with a large piece of tissue paper.
The old man, who would be dead within the hour, stood to let me in. His ankles shook and he gripped his headrest for support.
“Thanks,” I told him as we both sat back down. My knees brushed the back of the chair in front of me.
“No problem,” he said. His voice cracked, and his lips were wet with spittle.
No problem. In that remark, the man had given me his last words. I wondered later if there was a person in his life more deserving of them.
I held my phone next to the man’s mouth for a few more seconds. Still no fog appeared. I shoved it back into my pocket. My attention turned to the lady sitting to my left. Her eyes were shut, and her head leaned on the closed window shade. She was much younger than the old man, maybe in her late fifties. Her chest rose and fell rhythmically.
I raised my hand to signal the flight attendant as she strode down the aisle. The man’s hand was still resting in my lap, and as I delicately lifted his limp arm with just the tips of my thumb and index finger, I noticed that my own hand was shaking.
“Miss,” I whispered. She shot me a smile as she made her way to my row.
“How can I help you?”
“I’m not sure how to say this,” I said. The people surrounding us were doing normal airplane passenger things: plugging headphones into their devices and flipping the pages of murder mystery novels. I glanced back at the flight attendant. She still wore her smile, but her perfectly plucked eyebrows were raised in concern.
“I think this man is dead,” I told her. Her smile left, and her jaw fell. She looked at the man sitting next to me. His head shook slightly with the motion of the plane. She grasped his hand and dug two of her polished, red nails into his wrist.
“Oh my God,” she said. I noticed a nametag on her chest that was previously hidden under the shadows of the overhead lights. She had a pretty name, but nothing I was willing to remember.
“I’ll be right back,” she said, and hustled up the aisle, leaving me with the dead guy.
I’d flown enough to see other unusual things that happen on an airplanes. I’d once witnessed a lady get so sick that the crew had to give her a large, black garbage bag to hurl into during the entire flight. The previous summer, I experienced turbulence like a roller coaster when Kookaburra and I flew to Toronto. This topped them all.
Kook and I traveled a lot. That was our thing before she decided she didn’t love me anymore. Our first trip occurred only a month into our relationship. We took a week-long vacation to Seattle. This was also when she started her tradition of buying tourist T-shirts from each new city we visited. They were all made from the same cheap, polyester fabric and bought in crowded shops with that godawful fluorescent lighting. But she loved them, and we traveled to so many cities they soon became all she wore.
Kook liked the Space Needle and the food, but my favorite part of the trip took place that Saturday night, after we stopped by a post office to mail a letter to Kook’s mom. We stumbled around the streets of some young neighborhood, warm on whiskey and chardonnay. The sun had sunk behind some buildings and sketched orange and lilac streaks through the clouds. Kook was wearing the T-shirt I’d bought her earlier that day. It was three sizes too big, its hem stretching past her jean shorts, and featured Seattle’s skyline above its name written in big, blocky letters.
We were passing some dive bar or saloon when I heard a live band’s twangy cover of “Wagon Wheel.” I stopped and clapped along to the rhythm, nodding my head and missing a number of beats. Kook faced me and huffed. A few strands of hair flew out from her face and landed back on her nose. I inched my way closer to the bar’s door, but she stayed planted.
“Scott, you know I hate country music,” she said.
“This ain’t country, darlin’. This is American history.”
Kook hated when I used exaggerated accents.
I took her wrist, smacked her butt, and pulled her into the bar—all while still snapping off-beat. It was the type of place that was obviously well-kept, but it tried to appear dirty for the ambience. The floors were immaculate, with no noticeable sticky beer residue, but the walls were purposefully weathered with brown and mustard-colored stains. Beer-bellied bikers and cowboys blended seamlessly into the background, but their virile musk didn’t hang in the air.
After Kook’s first beer, I caught her sneakers tapping along with the band. On her second, her hips were swaying. When she finished her third, we were dancing and singing to a tune with a swinging piano riff that neither of us had heard before. I spun her around and her Seattle shirt flowed out like a dress. She landed back in my arms, and her feathery hair huddled in front of her face. I gathered the strands together and brushed them behind her ear, then squeezed the back of her neck and pulled her lips to mine. They were chapped and bitter with dried beer that I lapped with my tongue. It felt like fuel through my body, heating me more than anything I had to drink that night.
The flight attendant hurried back down the aisle, carrying one of the large fleece blankets that was on my original seat. Her face was grayer than before, and her lips were thin and stressed. She stopped at my row and unfolded the blanket at a steady pace.
“I talked to the Captain,” she told me, and spread out the last of the blanket. “He said that, seeing as the man is already dead, we don’t need to make an emergency landing in Hawaii.”
She spread the blanket over the old man. She stuck the hems of it behind his head and arms, as though she were tucking her child into bed. Under the slate blue fleece, the old man’s frame was lumpy like a storm cloud.
“If anyone walks by and asks you what happened, just direct them to me or one of the other flight attendants. Okay?” She asked, securing the blanket behind the man’s head. I nodded.
Within a half hour the flight attendants made their way down the aisle with sandwiches and a beverage cart. The main lights were all off, giving the plane’s interior a blue hue. The flight attendant handed me a cafeteria-grade turkey and cheese half-sub. My hand was still shaking when she passed me a plastic cup of water, and I spilled some onto the old man’s blanket, right where his lips presumably were. I winced, but she offered me a sympathetic smile. Don’t worry about it. She looked past me to the woman sitting on my left. She was still sleeping, propped against the side of the plane. Her jaw hung like there was an invisible hook attached to her chin, dragging it down.
I turned to the flight attendant again, but she was gone, already a few rows behind me and handing someone else a sandwich. I looked at mine. It was choking inside a tight casing of cellophane. I unwrapped the sub and a waft of sweet, processed white bread and orange cheese sent me back to elementary school. It even tasted like first grade.
Earlier, while I was waiting in line at the gate, minutes away from boarding, I called Kook. She knew I was leaving that day. There were only a couple of rings from the other end before the call went straight to voicemail. That wasn’t a surprise. After we broke up, eight times out of ten, Kook sent my calls to voicemail. In the message, I told Kook that I was about to board, and I wouldn’t be available for at least fifteen or so hours, but I’d keep my phone close when I landed in case she wanted to call. It would be about 7 a.m. Sydney time, 2 p.m. her time.
Kook was never fond of talking on the phone. She didn’t like technology. Instead of taking a million pictures during our trips to post on social media, she handwrote letters about our adventures. Not many people had the privilege of reading them, mostly just me before she mailed them to her mother.
I was never a great writer, but I could tell she was good. During our two-week trip in Miami, she compared greased-up topless people rolling in sand to the fried churros dusted in cinnamon sugar that we found at food stands on every corner. Her pen moved fast, never leaving the paper. The coils and loops of her cursive handwriting were acrobatic. Occasionally, she paused and picked at the pills on her Miami tourist shirt with the palm tree on it. She recorded her first Cuban cigar experience after we toured one of the local factories. Unlit, it was like rain-soaked Earth, like a barn she may have played in as a child. Lit, and it tasted like she stuck that soil in her mouth and set it ablaze with a honeyed fire.
Like I said, the lady had a way with words.
I spotted the flight attendant walking up the aisle and called her over again. She glanced at the body before focusing her attention on me.
“Is there a spare pen and piece of paper you could give me?” I asked. She rested her hand on the dead man’s seat and glanced toward the cockpit.
“Let me see what I can find.”
She walked up the aisle, and I looked around for some surface to write on. I could have unlocked the plastic tray attached to the chair in front of me, but that thing was blocky and took up most of the space I had left in my seat. An inflight magazine was tucked into the back of the chair in front of my knees. I pulled it out. The cover featured a picture of the Golden Gate Bridge, complete with a background of mountains, water, and a clear sky. After living in San Francisco for two decades, I knew it was the kind day the city only saw once or twice a year, when the bridge wasn’t bound in fog or smoke. Kook loved driving across the bridge whenever anything more than ten feet away was no longer visible. She used to say that the arches would emerge someday like bright red giants stepping out of the clouds and over my car.
The woman returned with a pen and a lined piece of notebook paper, freshly torn with little frills still hanging off the edge.
Sydney, I began writing.
Yes, my ex-girlfriend’s real name is Sydney. No, the irony was not lost on me.
You’re not going to believe it, but the old man sitting next to me died on my flight to Australia. Just a half an hour after takeoff. He straight-up died. I guess I really am unbearable to be around.
When things were going well between us, I called her Kookaburra. When she was pissed or annoyed, which happened a lot near the end, I stuck with Sydney. I watched her name creep out inch-by-inch when my plane ticket printed out at the airport kiosk. It was written in all caps and a bold, black font. That stupid piece of paper mocked me until the moment it was checked before boarding. I crumpled it into a ball and stuffed it into my pocket.
Are you settling into your mom’s place all right? I hope it hasn’t been a tough transition.
Kook had been living with her mom for three years when she and I met. She wasn’t unemployed, but her income was unstable. Kook was a freelance special effects makeup artist. Different, I know, but I genuinely envied how much she loved her job. Yet it was also a lifestyle that, at thirty-six, required her to depend on the generosity of her mom and partners.
A male flight attendant walked down the aisle, but I waited until my girl made her rounds to make my request.
“Could I get a glass of wine?” I asked her. All great writers drink too much, don’t they?
“Sure. What would you like?” she asked.
“Red. I don’t care what kind. Surprise me.”
I liked wine, and though I could be pretentious with my knowledge of it, Kook was even worse. On weekends when we weren’t traveling, we drove outside the city to a bed and breakfast in Napa Valley. During our time together, we visited nearly one hundred wineries. Kook was quick to pick up on the sommelier vernacular. My judging scale of California wine ranged from juice to almost turpentine, but she could use words like astringent tannins and silky mouthfeel.
On our way back to the bed and breakfast, passing emerald rows of grape vines divided by gentle mountains, we often stopped at In-N-Out and bought at least thirty dollars’ worth of fast food. We ate, maybe watched a movie, then fucked. We fucked hard, like animals. Maybe it was the wine, but something about Napa made Kook’s libido go crazy. She’d grab me underneath the table at tastings and whisper dirty fantasies in my ear when no one was around. Sometimes I’d get so worked up I couldn’t wait until we got home, and I fucked her against the wall in the cellar bathroom. I had assumed that a person’s sex life was always best in their twenties, but that proved to be untrue for me. I was with various girlfriends and partners during that time. The sex was average at best, and I’m sure they’d all say the same about me. With Kook, though, it was just better. Her supple skin was like proofed dough. She tasted sweeter. The slightness of her touch sent irrepressible tremors through me. I’d like to believe something more than the wine made me feel that way.
Remember our trips to Napa? I think I like the T-shirts you got from there most.
The flight attendant interrupted me with a plastic cup filled with liquid that was dark like black cherries. A puckery, dry film coated my mouth with one sip. I guessed Cabernet Sauvignon. There was something else too, a lingering flavor near the tip of my tongue, currant maybe? Like I snapped one in half with my front teeth.
In the middle of writing about Napa, I dozed off. I woke up six hours later with a heavy weight on my bladder. The lady to my left was still asleep, too. She had risen at some point, because her screen was switched to the flight tracker map. We appeared to be flying directly above Oahu.
“It’s pronounced HUH-VUH-EE,” said Kook, two months before she left me, we were in the middle of searching ticket prices for flights to Honolulu.
“What? There’s no ‘V’ in Hawaii,” I said.
“Trust me. It’s the way you’re supposed to say it.” She was doodling something in her sketchbook, her feet stretched out on the couch and her back facing me. I was at my work desk in the corner of our living room. Eight tabs with various travel websites were opened on my laptop.
“Well, I’m not pronouncing it like that when we get there. I’ll sound like an idiot,” I said.
“Do whatever you want, Scott.” My gaze shifted from my laptop to Kook. Auburn locks rained down her shoulders and disappeared into one of the tawny, fuzzy pillows she bought to decorate my couch. In the letter, I admitted my remorse over never learning how to surf together from one of the Hawaiian locals.
The remaining flight time was also displayed on the tracker map. Five hours and thirty-six minutes. Holding my bladder for that long would be impossible.
I unlocked my seatbelt and rose to my feet. I swung one leg over the old man’s body and landed next to him. I picked up my other foot and attempted to swing it the same way, but it must have caught on his leg, because the next moment I was face-down on the ground in the middle of the aisle. When I turned over, dozens of eyes were fixed on me. The flight attendants were all by my side within seconds. One grabbed my arm to pull me up.
“I’m fine. I’m good,” I told her, brushing all of them off me. I pushed myself up and looked at the old man. He hadn’t moved at all. The blanket shifted a bit, but it hadn’t fallen off him. The woman sitting to my left had woken up and stared at me, her mouth open and nose all wrinkled.
Some of the other passengers questioned the attendants about who was under the blanket, and I rushed past rows of inquisitive faces and entered one of the bathrooms at the end of aisle.
Once inside, I relieved myself and let out a long breath that I’d been holding since I fell. After flushing, I washed my hands in a sink with a large mirror above it. A bright red mark on my upper left cheek surfaced from where I’d fallen, but besides that, I looked okay. At least I looked as good as I could for a guy approaching middle age.
After the first year of our relationship, Kook and I traversed an exceedingly rough patch when she landed a gig as the Head Makeup Artist on the set of an indie film. I wouldn’t see her for days on end, but when she was home, I’d often hear her small feet slap the tile late at night as she shuffled into the living room, where I had been sleeping on the couch for weeks. She’d ask if I thought she’d gotten fat. Each time she probed me, she fidgeted with a different body part. One night she tugged at the cellulite under her arms to make the dimpling disappear. Another night she gathered into her fist some of the extra fat hanging on her lower belly. Ripples like silver water formed on her silk nightgown. While I didn’t notice any weight change, I told her it was “no big deal” if she had gained a few pounds. I knew anxiety would drill her awake for hours, and that’s what she deserved for neglecting our time together. A few weeks later, Kook asked a friend to fill in for her on the film set, and we got back to our lives as scheduled.
In the airplane bathroom mirror, I attempted something I ordinarily mocked other men for doing. I started flexing. Biceps, triceps, and delts were visible even through my long sleeves. I raised my elbows above my head, and a well-earned six-pack peeked from underneath my shirt. After my stomach started protruding over my waist when I hit my early thirties, I bought a gym membership. When I found small lines forming around my eyes and mouth, I invested in collagen-producing skincare products. I ran my hands through the blond hair at the top of my head. It was thinning a bit, especially near the back. Did Kook ever notice that?
I exited the bathroom and returned to my seat, this time without tripping. Other passengers in the surrounding rows stared at me as inched over the man. The lady to my left had eyes like clouded marbles in old Mancala sets.
“He’s…?” she whispered as I re-buckled my seatbelt. I nodded my head. “When?” she asked.
“Early,” I said. “While you were asleep.” She folded back into her seat. It occurred to me that she might have had some sort of exchange with the man before I arrived. Ten minutes later, she flipped through the latest film releases on her monitor, settling for an action movie.
Rumors about the man must have circulated around the plane, because travelers made trips down the aisle much more frequently than the average bathroom break necessitates. Individuals returned to their family and friends and whispered into each other’s ears, and a minute or two later someone else from their group would wander away, feigning a full bladder. Their attention locked onto the old man, before they noticed me staring, and then they reoriented their gaze somewhere, anywhere, else.
In between these insensitive passengers, I labored over the love letter.
With three hours of flight time remaining, my hand cramped. I put the pen down and looked at the old man again. Up close, I could see the silhouette of his forehead and his bottom lip, but his large nose created a sharp angle that disrupted the rest of his features. Tiny fibers of lint flaked off at the top of the peak. That kind of thing was common with Kook’s timeworn tourist clothes. Her Seattle shirt had the worst case of pilling. By the end of our relationship, it was covered in wine stains and frayed to the point where little holes stretched their way around the hem. She didn’t seem to mind any of that, but she could not stand the pills. Kook plucked each individual bead of fabric, and the shirt took such a beating that the once dense material was almost see-through.
The old man’s blanket wasn’t that damaged, but it clearly wasn’t new. They likely washed and reused all of their passengers’ sheets, but would they give someone else the same blanket used to cover a dead man’s body?
I raised my left hand up to the tip of the man’s nose and scratched at the particles of fabric. Fuzzy fibers collected underneath my fingernail. I didn’t pay attention to the blanket’s hem shifting behind the old man’s head, and within a few seconds the sheet fell and exposed his face. I jumped back in my seat, at first surprised by the fallen sheet, and then shocked by how much worse the old man appeared in just under twelve hours. His skin hung in a way that I’d never witnessed on a person. The wrinkles on his forehead and cheeks weren’t as defined anymore. Instead, they were pulled by loose, sagging flesh around his jaw. His lips were like chipped alabaster.
My attempts to pull the blanket behind the old man’s head were unsuccessful. I didn’t want to touch his skin, afraid of what it might feel like. I noticed the flight attendant making her way down the aisle and frantically threw the blanket over his face. I prayed for it to stay put, but it slipped past his nose and chin and down to his neck. She saw the whole thing and marched to my row, crossing her arms.
“It fell,” I said. She rolled her eyes. There had been no turbulence to support my lie. She used the very tips of her fingers to gently move the old man forward, tuck the blanket behind his head, and guide him back.
Breakfast was served two hours before landing. Two attendants passed a couple of warm, sealed plastic trays and cutlery over the body to me and the woman to my left. Steam seeped out when and collected in droplets on the tip of my nose when I tore open the wrapping. Blueberry pancakes with a canned peach syrup and sausage patties were what was on the menu. Before she left, one of the attendants handed us two Australian incoming passenger cards. I read over the questions and stabbed my fork into one of the sausages. Hot, briny juice gushed to the back of my throat when I took a bite.
The card asked standard questions that I was expected to answer at Australian Customs: my full name, passport number, the types of items I was bringing to the country, and my intended address. The unit I was moving into was located in a neighborhood called Haymarket. My new office assured me that I’d be living in the heart of Sydney.
The back of the card was divided into three sections. One was designated for returning residents. The other two were for those either visiting or permanently migrating to Australia. My fingers traced the card’s surface. Sweat built up on my fingertips and smudged some of the ink I’d used to answer the other questions. A few seconds later, I marked an ‘X’ under “migrating permanently”.
You know you can visit me any time, right? I’ll even pay for your plane ticket. It’s a long flight, but at least you won’t get stuck next to a dead guy. Probably.
We began our descent about thirty minutes before our arrival time. The turbulence was worse than I anticipated. I strained against my seatbelt as, at times, it felt like we were falling out of the sky. My ears popped as though strings of wine corks were being tugged out of them. The old man’s body shook in his seat, and the blanket came loose at his waist. His left pants pocket peeked out next to me. The cabin’s white lights grew brighter as we coasted closer to the ground. The woman in the window seat opened the window shade to her left. We were still over water, and the Australian morning sun created a gold cast on the mossy ocean.
“How would you like to wear a T-shirt with your own name on it?” I asked Kook the evening after my boss informed me of my promotion in Australia. She sat on our couch, hunched over her sketchbook. Her hands were covered in white clay.
“What do you mean?” she asked, not looking up from what she was scribbling. Kook was wearing her Fisherman’s Wharf shirt. Of all the spots to spy on clueless tourists in San Francisco, that was her favorite.
I explained that my company was expanding their branch in Sydney and wanted to promote a team of marketing heads to oversee the development. She remained focused on her sketchbook until I mentioned that it would likely be a permanent move.
“But I don’t want to move to Australia,” she said, picking her head up and meeting my eyes for the first time since I had arrived home. It never crossed my mind that Kook might refuse to leave San Francisco. I didn’t think she had anything to leave behind. I stepped over to the couch and trapped her shoulders in my arms, but Kook shrugged me off. I peeked at her sketchbook. She was tracing some kind of human-raven hybrid. He had a sharp, angled beak where his nose and mouth should have been. Feathers covered his arms, and she shaded them in with hues of blue and gray.
“Cool picture,” I said. I walked to our kitchen’s fridge and opened the door.
“This doesn’t have to be a big deal,” I told Kook, pulling the last can of beer out of the six-pack rings. “Tomorrow, I’ll tell my boss to find someone else for the job.”
“You should go,” said Kook. I was about to ask her why she would say that when she just told me she didn’t want to move, and then I realized what she truly meant.
“This hasn’t been working for a while,” she said. I put the beer can on the counter next to the fridge, my palm still frigid and clammy. Kook’s sketchbook was closed in her lap. Tears collected in her lashes and dribbled onto the book’s glossy, black cover.
“Let’s pause for a moment,” I said, and met her on the other side of the couch. I bent down on one knee and held her hands. They were stiff and damp, matching my own. “What exactly isn’t working?” I asked. I pressed her fingertips to my lips and told her to forget that I mentioned Australia.
“That’s not it, Scott,” said Kook. Pressure formed at the back of my eyes, but I kept them closed so nothing would escape. “I don’t think I love you anymore.”
My throat shriveled. I tried to swallow some saliva, but it got stuck in the back of my mouth, causing me to dry heave into my fist. I would have rather heard her say she fucked someone else. I could place all the blame onto her and attempt to convince myself that she didn’t deserve me. But that wasn’t the case.
Kook started wheezing, which then turned to hiccups. My hands were covered in both of our tears, and when I stroked the top of her head to calm her down, hair strands clumped together.
“I hear what you’re saying, but you haven’t given us a fair chance, Kook. Look at—”
“Stop calling me that!” she said, unlocking my hand from hers. She rose to her feet and backed into a corner on the other side of the room. “My name is Sydney. I’ve put up with that nickname for two years. I’m not some frail bird for you to take care of.”
The next three hours involved lots of shouting and pleading. She packed a duffle bag full of her favorite tourist clothes and a toothbrush to bring to her mom’s place. When I accused her of being cruel for wasting my time, Kookaburra’s squawk vibrated off the floor and ceiling and through my bones. She grabbed her bag and rushed towards the front door. When I tried to follow her, she told me to stay. I rubbed my swollen eyes with the palms of my hands, and I didn’t look up again for ten minutes even after I heard the door close.
We hit the runway hard, and I bounced in my seat. The old man’s blanket shifted again, exposing more of his left pants pocket. After taxiing for a few minutes, we stopped next to the airport, and outside the window, two paramedics were already waiting on the ground. I thought they might try to take the old man away with everyone else still on board, but my assumption was proven wrong when I heard the flight attendant’s voice over the speaker. She apologized for the delay and announced the local time and temperature along with our arrival at the Kingsford Smith International Airport.
“On behalf of the entire crew, I’d like to thank you for flying with us. Welcome to Sydney.”
Sydney’s letter still rested on my lap. I read the last few sentences over and over.
Sydney, I’m sorry. Really. I need you, and I need to hear from you. Visit me in Australia. I’ll pay for everything. Or just call me when you get this, okay? I love you, and I miss you. Don’t forget that.
I felt ridiculous for believing she might actually reply.
The first few rows began to gather their belongings and deboard. Sydney’s letter felt heavy in my grip. I skimmed through all the memories that she wouldn’t care about and the sentiments she’d never feel for me. My freedom existed in the space between those lines.
More rows in front of me emptied one by one, many passengers stealing one more glance of the old man, but when it came time, I couldn’t leave my seat—not without learning what would happen to the old man. I gestured for the lady to my left to climb over my legs and exit without me.
Almost every row had cleared when the flight attendant approached me. I noted her nametag again, etching Sheila into my memory.
“It’s time to go, sir.”
“What will happen to him?” I asked.
“The paramedics will find his family, and they will make arrangements. Everything will be fine, but you have to leave first.”
I bowed my head. Next to the paramedics outside the window, the stretcher was dark and thin with belts made of yellow nylon. “Thank you, Sheila. You’ve been great,” I said. She smiled and thanked me for my patience and cooperation.
She turned her back to me, marching toward the front of the plane. While I sat there, alone and unchecked for a moment, I crushed the paper into a tight ball and shoved it into the man’s left pocket. My upper body was rigid, straddling his legs to exit the row. Gradually, my body released the tension as I walked further away from the man, like the counterclockwise turn of a key to a wind-up toy.
I stepped onto the jet bridge, noticing a faint light from the airport terminal at the end of the tunnel. The light grew brighter as I got closer. Then the bridge was blinding. It shuddered under the weight of my ascent.
Cara Lynn Albert is a writer and educator from Florida, and she is currently embracing the Rocky Mountains while she completes her MFA degree at the University of Colorado Boulder. Her work has also appeared in Puerto del Sol, Baltimore Review, and elsewhere. She serves as the Creative Nonfiction Editor at TIMBER Journal.