This is the ninth story in this summer’s online Flash Fiction series. You can read the entire series, and our Flash Fiction stories from 2017 and 2018, here.
When she checked her boarding pass, she was in the middle of the row, and there was a man in a blue suit on the aisle, who gave her a big bleached-white smile as he stood to let her past. The window seat stayed unoccupied for a while, and her hopes rose when a man with a clipboard boarded the plane, his hair gauzy with dew. But there were still people in the aisle, and one of them now stopped beside her row: a huge boy, who was trying to make space for a rucksack in the overhead bin. His belly was right there—she could see it as his green shirt parted company with the belt of his jeans. The rucksack did not fit, so he clasped it to his chest as he turned sideways to squeeze past her and into the window seat. He was wearing a Peruvian hat in brown-and-white wool with a design of llamas and a flap over each ear, and there were tassels dangling from the flaps down to his collar line. A teen-ager. Ninety per cent muscle, thirty per cent puppy fat; he might have another few inches still to go. Once he was seated—she did not know how he did it, but the bag was wedged between his legs and eased under the seat in front, and somehow this huge child made himself small for her. Tucked away. Almost decorous. The guy on the aisle had a newspaper, a big broadsheet, which he opened with a shake, but the child by the window gave her room. He did not smell, not even his hat. His eyes, when she checked, were shy and brown.
The bones of her back were pulled into the upholstery as the plane tilted and split from the runway, so she was travelling chest first, heart first, her pelvis cupped in the angle of the seat, and it was difficult—with gravity pulling her backward like this—to think of anything but getting up there. After a while, there was a bing-bong over the loudspeakers, but nothing changed and no one moved. The plane cut through a skein of dark-gray cloud, through a layer of liquid light, into another cloud that started as dark as steel wool, then thickened to gray and turned slowly white. In a moment, they would be free of it.
Pippa loved the moment of breaking out into the upper air, so blue and bright. She thought it would happen any second now, but the engines shifted and the plane started to bank and turn, and then turn again. They were still flying through whiteness, so there was no horizon to judge their angle by, but the three of them in the row were definitely canted over, once and then again. The man in the shiny suit dropped toward her shoulder, and the boy was pushed against the fuselage wall. His eyes—all their eyes—were drawn toward the window as the plane kept turning, not banking now so much as falling. The plane dropped and dropped. They fell from thick white through fog that was loose with unshed rain, until they were back out where they had started from: the huge under-cloud dusk of earthbound weather. And now it was hard to tell if the plane was still turning, or if it was just falling. Another shift brought them to a steeper angle and to the idea that the nose was down: the plane might start to spiral through the air.
No one wanted to look at anyone else, because, if their eyes met, that would mean they were about to be killed. They could see the countryside below: a small city to one side, mountains directly beneath. The ground was approaching, though not very fast. It did not look dangerous, or even real, but she realized that it had been going on for a long time: this question of flying or falling. There was a sharp pain in her stomach, but her mind was completely clear. Her mind told her that she might die within the next sixty seconds or so. She had a leisurely amount of time to laugh at her fear and then to be afraid again, to consider last thoughts and blink them away: her husband and her three children asleep in their beds.
It was a strangely buoyant sensation, this falling. The human beings in the plane were dropping at the same speed as the metal around them, so they were no longer forced against the fuselage. She understood the immense weight of the falling plane and the lightness of their bodies inside it.
They had hit a thermal, perhaps—or the opposite of a thermal—a gap in the mountain air. She looked for a lake below them, or some other feature that might make a chimney of cold they would tumble down, but there was nothing in the landscape that she could read in that way.
The boy in the window seat turned up to look at her, one hand lightly braced along the wall of the plane, the other holding on to the arm rest. And when she looked down at him—because he was almost directly below her now—she saw something she had not seen since her babies each opened their eyes for the first time. A full human being. Utterly himself. A new person in her life. And what use was that to her now?
He was seventeen, maybe eighteen. She was forty-three years old. In the lozenge of light that fell from the other side of the plane (which was now the top side), she saw that his eyes were not brown but amber. Sallow skin, black hair—his eyes were beautiful, but it was hard to tell if he was beautiful. Boys were a bit of a mystery to her. Despite the attention-seeking hat, he was not the object of anyone’s attention. He was—and, of course, this was what the hat was all about!—in disguise.
The boy was lurking inside this ridiculous hat, ironic and hidden. And, yes, he was terrified, but he was also shaking the woollen tassels, saying, “Really? Now?” And this helped her, quite a lot. She thought she might hold his hand. Or touch his hand, which was clenched around the tip of the arm rest; it looked white, as though fear had made him cold. She thought she could warm it out of him a little. The skin of his hand was right there.
But, sometime before the mountain tops—long before—at three thousand feet or five thousand feet, they came out of it, whatever it was. The plane levelled: their bodies grew heavy again as it started to climb. They turned in silence to the seats in front of them. Pippa resisted an urge to touch the gray plastic of the tray table. The boy pulled earbuds up from his green shirt pocket and she closed her eyes.