Jill woke with a start as the plane hit turbulence. Overhead lights flickered and the captain pinged the crew. She sat forward after hearing the attendant’s warning regarding belts, upright seat backs, and tray tables. In a groggy haze, she peeked over the seat in front of her. Other passengers in the cabin stirred as well. Most on the overseas red-eye appeared to have, like her, been sleeping, but a few sat, eyes glazed in front of a movie. When the screens went black, the watchers let out a collective groan.
A young woman in the window seat next to her sat with clenched hands and asked, ‘Do you think everything’s okay?’
‘Pardon me?’ Jill asked.
‘Do you think we’ll crash?’
Jill looked into the woman’s face for the first time, though they had been seated together for five hours. It bore a slight cringed, taut brow, and half-open mouth, like a child on the high dive at a neighborhood pool.‘I’m sure it’s fine,’ Jill said.
‘It feels like we’re going to crash. The lights shouldn’t go out like that, should they? Why doesn’t the screen work?’
Jill, a seasoned traveler, had been on many bumpy rides. Turbulence didn’t usually last long. Pilots knew to fly around storms or change elevation. The situation was generally exaggerated in the passengers' worries. ‘This kind of thing happens often over the ocean. Maybe not the glitch in the entertainment system, but I’m sure it will turn back on soon.’
The woman began to bite her nails. Jill settled her shoulders into the seat and closed her eyes. She had no intention of talking to the woman for the rest of the flight.
The aircraft bounced on the jet stream as it shook and jolted. Jill grabbed her armrest and unintentionally brushed against her seat mate’s hand. ‘Oh. Sorry,’ she said.
Just then the plane dropped and the lights went out. Passengers screamed. The young woman next to Jill uttered a guttural wail.
After a few seconds, the plane steadied and the pilot urged the passengers to stay calm and announced they were ‘working to restore power to the cabin.’ And that ‘everything is under control.’
Through the faint emergency lighting, the woman seated by the window continued to cry, her face contorted. Jill didn’t want to listen to the wailing. ‘Please. I’m sure everything will be fine,’ she said.
It reminded her of a flight to Malaysia a few years earlier. Jill’s plane had circled above Sitiawan for eighty minutes before landing. The first few times around, she chuckled, blaming poor organization at the remote airport. But the longer the small plane flew in circles, the more her amusement turned to worry over fuel levels. She had been unable to understand the announcements given in Malay and Chinese, so her fears escalated to near panic. Everything had turned out all right and the plane landed safely without incident, but Jill would have appreciated some reassurance at the time.
‘I’m Jill,’ she said.
The woman grabbed Jill’s hand and clenched it tight.
What had Jill gotten herself into? It wasn’t like her to talk to a stranger on a plane. Or anywhere else. Attachments of any kind frightened her. But the young woman needed someone and only she was nearby.
‘Shhh. There now,’ Jill said, her voice soft. ‘What’s your name?’
Between sobs, the girl managed, ‘Ella.’
‘Ella, I travel a lot. The dark cabin is unusual, but the turbulence isn’t. Really. It happens all the time. I’ve witnessed far worse. We’re going to be fine.’
‘I’ve never flown before,’ said Ella. ‘I don’t want to die.’
‘Well, neither do I! But we won’t.’
‘You can’t be sure. People do die,’ she cried. ‘They die all the time.’
Ella’s words struck Jill like a bird flying into a windowpane, leaving her stunned. Yes, people do die. They die and leave you alone with no choice in the matter. And you’re lost and lonely and it hurts so bad, you make yourself even lonelier, so no one ever dies on you again. That’s what Jill wanted to say, but instead, ‘Have you lost someone?’
Ella wiped her tears with her sleeve, all the while still grasping Jill’s hand.
‘My boyfriend, I mean fiancé really…’ The aircraft violently dipped and rocked. ‘Agh!’
Jill tightened her grip. ‘Stay with me,’ she said. ‘Focus. Look, we’re fine. You were saying…boyfriend?’
‘Fiancé. Why is it so cold?’
‘We're traveling in a northern arc over the arctic circle, the shortest distance.’ But explanations about trajectory didn’t matter, so Jill continued. ‘Tell me about your fiancé.’
As the plane rocked, the volume of chatter in the cabin increased. A flight attendant called for the passengers to ‘remain calm.’ Throughout the cabin, people paired in conversation. The white-haired man in the seat next to Jill talked in whispered tones and held the hand of the wrinkled woman in the seat across the aisle from him.
‘Clown,’ said Ella. ‘Real name, Jason. We met in kindergarten. He had the curliest, red hair you’ve ever seen. And it stuck straight out of his head. He called himself ‘Clown’ before anyone else could tease him about it. But the truth is, he was confident in himself and never needed anyone else’s approval. The name stuck. Only he was anything but a clown.’
Jill could visualize the self-assured young man, not so unlike her own Steven. Only Steven had no reason for self-deprecation. He had the smile of a toothpaste commercial model. Cocky and invincible, that was her Steven. If Jill had known he’d be so reckless with not only his life, but also their love, would she have chosen different? Chosen? Ha! Hadn’t it been the other way around? She was lucky he chose her. Everyone said so.
‘This trip was to be our honeymoon,’ Ella said, then put her hands to her face to hide more tears. ‘We were to meet with the caterer for a cake tasting, but he didn’t show up. An aneurysm. He’d never even woken that morning.’
Jill could hardly believe what she was hearing. Someone so young. And now Ella was taking the honeymoon trip on her own.
‘I needed to get away, be alone. Time to think. And the trip was paid for.’
‘You’re incredibly brave. I don’t think I could’ve…’
‘Oh, not at all. I don't know how I'll continue. I only know I couldn’t stay home and be under the eyes of pity.’
A lump formed in Jill’s throat. Neither had she when Steven died. He had been a large man with a loud voice, who filled every space. She had been swallowed in the immensity of his personality, and lost in his great need for adventure. He’d consumed oxygen like a candle in a glass jar until there was none left. By the time he lost his life in a kayaking accident, there was nothing left of Jill. She turned inward and abandoned connections with others.
Yet there she was, listening to a stranger tell the tragic story of her young lover while she held her hand on a tumultuous flight. Not just hearing the story, but identifying with Ella's sorrow as though it were her own. Had she even grieved for Steven? She only felt empty. Perhaps grief was that numbness shrouding her soul each day since. If so, it wasn’t something you got over.
‘I lost my husband too. Years ago.’ Her words surprised her. She had never revealed anything to a stranger. Why this woman? Why now?
‘Oh, then you understand,’ said Ella. ‘I don’t feel like I can face the world. It seems appropriate to travel to a remote island, doesn't it?’
Yes. Exactly. Jill had been doing that same thing since Steven passed away. She had traveled to far-off places and withdrawn from commitments and responsibilities. Away from those who felt sorry for her. She couldn’t stay home because she was poor company to herself. So she kept moving from one land of strangers to another, never staying long enough to connect or allow anyone close.
But it was a lonely life. One she regretted and now didn’t wish on Ella. ‘When we land and get settled, I’d like to take you to lunch.’
‘I’d like that,’ Ella said. ‘If we make it.’
‘We’ll make it,’ said Jill.
As if on cue, the lights in the cabin flickered on. The captain announced the return of full power to the cabin and an expected arrival time.
The passengers applauded. Some whooped.
Ella said, ‘It seems like you were right all along. Must have been routine turbulence.’
‘No. Not routine. But we’re going to be just fine,’ said Jill. ‘Both of us.’
About the author
Kathy Whipple is a musician, artist, and writer living in Boise, Idaho. Her writing is inspired by her travels and time living in Southeast Asia. She has previously published in CafeLit, Spillwords, Madswirl, and Friday Flash Fiction.
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