Please note: this story was provided by the author and published as is.
Let this be a warning to whomever come beyond me. Let my hasty ink spot scratch save someone’s idiot son or daughter. It is already too late for me. I should have trusted my instincts. I should have screamed. Let them drag me kicking, biting, spitting off that plane. This warning I scrawl in secret on the corner of my complimentary napkin, shoulders hunched as if that gesture might hide me. I know they are watching. The perspiration dripping down my nose, tears blurring my vision, fingers trembling so that the pen clacks an erratic heartbeat rhythm on the tray table. They already have me. Let them watch.
I could say it started simple enough. It didn’t. Stepping into the cabin I felt the air suck straight out of my lungs, as if the pressure hadn’t been properly adjusted and we were already in the air. The stewardess’s smile was fake and slimy. She curled her long red fingernails around my carry-on bag like she might yank it from my hands.
“I’ll hang onto it, thanks,” I tried to say with a shaky laugh. The stewardess laughed too, mechanical and forced.
“Suit yourself, darling.” It sounded like a challenge. I fumbled for my ticket, suddenly forgetting my seat number. I had requested an aisle seat, that I remembered. How strange, how strange to have such a distinct memory of the request. I had always preferred the window, after all. I could rest my head on the plasticky rounded walls and pass out for a few moments of uneasy plane sleep. Atlanta to New York should afford me a few hours of sleep, restful or not. No, we were in New York. Heading to Atlanta then. A few hours regardless. Funny, I thought, still fumbling for the ticket. I had never been to New York.
“Ma’am,” I said turning to her. “I think I’ve lost my ticket and I don’t remember my seat number.” Her smile stretched her mouth thin. She tapped one white French tipped fingernail to her nose as if to say I know! and ushered me with a wide gesture to the seat to my right.
“Right here, darling.”
Yes here, this was the only thing of which I was sure. That this was my aisle window seat and I belonged here. Gratefully I sank into the cushioned seat and gave the stewardess a strained smile. She squeezed my shoulder with those cheap pink stick-on nails and continued down the aisle, taking carry on bags from patrons and flashing her alien smile.
“First time?” said the man to my right. He was tall, his legs folded in, occupying much of the cramped space, and yet he looked quite comfortable. His eyes were blue and his hair was dark. He looked like someone I could easily have been in love with, and it occurred to me that we may have been at one point. There was that easy grin, those full lips that made me blush, and familiarity bubbled up inside me. I had known him for years, yes that is something of which I was absolutely sure.
“I fly all the time,” I assured the stranger with a nervous laugh.
“But never this airline?”
The question made me pause. Working so many years in New York, I had flown hundreds of times, American, Delta, Spirit, even Lufthansa on a number of occasions. I couldn’t remember the name of this particular company, so I gave a small shake of the head. He smiled, settling back into his seat and popping in an earbud.
“You’ll like this one,” he said, closing his eyes. “Make sure you try the chocolate cake after dinner.”
A stewardess, different from before, commanded our attention for a few short moments for her safety brief before the captain crackled over the speaker. The static was overpowering; you could only catch a few phrases. I should have written them down as soon as I heard them. Even now, my cognition sharpened with fear, I can only half recall the snatches of words I heard over the speaker.
Enjoy tonight’s dessert: a spectacular spiced chocolate cake.
“Detroit, no,” I murmured, searching for the stewardess’s eyes through the throng of passengers. “No, ma’am, please. I’m flying to San Francisco, please I think I’m on the wrong plane.” Her eyes glazed over me like I wasn’t there.
“This is the plane for you,” my seat partner was saying, producing my ticket from his carry-on and pointing out the details. “Don’t worry, darling, you’re exactly where you’re supposed to be.”
Hours passed in the minutes between take off and the top of climb. Don’t forget to ask your flight attendant about our famous spectacular spiced chocolate cake came the captain’s voice over the speaker a few more times. I thought we might have trays for dinner, a rolling cart of beverages, even a bag of peanuts would have curbed my hunger, but when nothing came, I caved and ordered the flight’s special.
“One famous and spectacular spiced chocolate cake.” The man beside me smiled, a twin crocodile to the stewardess who had ushered me to my seat.
“Make that two,” he said.
Plop plop two slices of cake, one on each tray, and I was immediately hit with the aroma of chocolate. One bite and I was giddy, intoxicated with spice: ginger, nutmeg, even coffee, rich and dark and spectacular. I looked at my seat partner, my dearest friend, and licked chocolate frosting off my fingers.
“God, isn’t this good?” I said to him as the tiredness overtook me. Two, three blinks and I was out, embarrassed to find my head bob onto his shoulder. He was warm and soft and smelled like drowsy dark chocolate.
I slept. It could have been only minutes but it felt like hours. My throat was sticky, sore, dry like I hadn’t had water for days.
“I’m so sorry,” I told the soft shoulder I had fallen asleep on, but it was just the smooth rounded plastic of the airplane walls. I sat up straight, breath starting to grow ragged, like the pressure in the cabin was closing in around me. I craned my neck, searching for the stewardess or my strange friend but there was no one. Not a single soul in a single seat. My heart beat wildly in my chest. There came the captain’s voice again, marred again by static:
“Folks we’re beginning our descent into Houston, flights attendants please prepare—”
I clawed at the seatbelt, ignoring the light. Houston, Houston was wrong, that much I was certain. Even I was beginning to admit that my certainly was depreciating in value, but Houston felt wrong, the empty plane felt wrong, the uneaten slices of chocolate cake abandoned on trays felt downright sinister.
“I need to speak to the captain,” I gasped, using my shoulder to budge open the cockpit door. “Please sir, I have to get off this plane.”
And there he was, blue eyes, dark hair, quite the picture of ease with his feet on the complicated dash, his pilot’s cap tipped back on his head. He smiled, crocodile teeth falling out of his mouth, skittering onto the floor. I should have screamed then. Instead, I squared my shoulders, narrowed my gaze, looked him right in those strangely friendly eyes and said, “I have to get off this plane.”
“Then jump!” he cried. The door was open, wind rumbling, papers flying around us in a panicked tornado as the plane plummeted toward the earth.
“She’s going to jump!” cried the other passengers aboard the ship. We were standing on the dock, whipped by the salty air of the sea. I was on the ledge then, dress soaked, face stained with grime and tears. The ocean churned beneath me, and I thought it might swallow me whole.
“Help me,” I whispered but no one heard. The words were drowned by the sound of the sea, waves crashing against the boat and the siren’s song of the captain’s voice, luring people away from the dock, back inside to the dining room. Back inside to safety and the promise of spectacularly spiced chocolate cake.
It occurred to me then that I had been on this ship for quite the long time.
And so I dove. The icy water hit me like a wall. I didn’t even have time to scream, is that when I should have screamed? No time, no time, the water was already filling my lungs, carrying me further into the waves, dark dark, nearly bruise black. I closed my eyes, let the lack of oxygen slam me into submission. I closed my eyes.
I opened my eyes. The cart rattled past, laden with plastic cups, bottles of juice and water, and peanuts. The stewardess let her eyes pass over my tear-stained cheeks and disheveled hair before rattling past herself. I would have liked a bottle of water. My throat was raw, as if I had been screaming. The man beside me stirred in his sleep. His tray was in the upright position, tucked safely, and his arms were folded comfortably over his chest.
My own tray was down, my collection of ink smudged napkins taking up most of the space, a few even fluttering to the floor. And there, perched on a paper plate, lay a confection that made me pause.
An intact and completely untouched slice of chocolate cake.
“Do you get it now?” he whispered. I didn’t have to look up to see who he was, but the draw to meet his blue skies eyes overpowered me. I drank in the captain’s appearance, both familiar and strange, and it parched my arid throat and tongue. The image of him oscillated between my visual fields, one moment sitting comfortably at my side, the next leaning by the door that led to the cockpit. He made me look between both delusions, pivoting my head like I was watching a tennis match.
“Yes,” I lied. It was the cake. It was drugged. Or it was the plane, or maybe it was him. Something keeping me here. He shook his head. One of the versions of him clamped a hand on my shoulder, and I found that I liked the weight of him there. I tried to smile, but I was so tired. I was worried that if I tried too hard, my teeth my pop out of my head. Little crocodile pearls bouncing about the cabin.
“You don’t get it,” he said, and he might have sounded melancholy for me. He kept walking, making his rounds through the aircraft, squeezing shoulders and offering encouragement.
The plane landed. There was no stomach flip of descent, no bump bump bump as the wheels touched down onto the asphalt. I didn’t remember crumpling up my blotched napkins or discarding the piece of cake, but it didn’t seem to matter as I settled into a state of calm. The weight of my seat mate’s hand was warm and pleasant, lulling me into the comfort of my plush seat. I felt only the buds of anxiety, nervous to take off. I was going to Shanghai. My very first time.
I saw a girl board. She could have been my age, maybe younger. I saw the way she clutched her bags close to her chest, like unease was starting to bloom inside her. I saw the kind stewardess with the pretty fingernails show her to her seat, close to mine, and saw her eyes dart from passenger to passenger. Like she didn’t trust us.
“Here,” said the captain to the girl. He was sitting beside her, a comforting hand on her knee, and I thought to myself how kind of him it was to offer his reassurance.
“You’re exactly where you’re supposed to be,” he said, and his voice was a refrain. Maybe I had heard this song before. He looked at me, his blues on mine. I offered the girl a smile. I watched her recoil, but I didn’t know why.
“You’ll like this airline,” I intoned and suddenly it struck me that the words were not my own. I tried to break the captain’s gaze, but he held steady. I nodded.
And the curse bubbled out of my lips, ancient and weird, an awkward champagne toast among us weary travelers: “Make sure you try the chocolate cake.”