Anna’s not sure what to think when a flight attendant races down the aisle, grabbing plastic cups out of passengers’ hands and snatching freshly-opened bags of peanuts from tray tables. “Hey! I haven’t finished yet! And I’m thirsty!” she hears an angry woman yell. The young flight attendant, with a blotchy complexion and hot pink lipstick on her teeth, ignores the complaint. This is when Anna’s chest tightens. This is when she starts thinking, I knew I shouldn’t have gotten on this plane. Something is wrong. She looks to her two daughters sitting next to her. The older, Melanie, who has the middle seat, wears headphones, and she’s bobbing her head to whatever music she’s listening to. The younger, Tessa, sits next to the window and is sound asleep, her head resting on her shoulder. Anna’s husband Mark sits across the aisle, chatting with an off-duty pilot who happens to be sitting next to him. Her husband is very friendly. He often chats with waitresses, tollbooth attendants, or cashiers at grocery stores. He has a welcoming smile, a shiny balding head, and eyes that glisten with tears when he laughs. His interactions with others make her conscious of the fact she is everything he is not: meek, timid, small. She used to wonder how someone so gregarious ever fell in love with her.
Anna hears static and then the pilot’s voice fills the cabin. “We will be landing in a matter of minutes. Flight attendants, prepare for landing.” Minutes? she wonders. But we just took off a half hour ago. She’s very glad she took those sedatives before boarding the plane. Her heart is racing, but at least her breathing is fairly steady, and she can see clearly. She doesn’t feel as if a panic attack is in the near future. “What’s going on, Mom?” Melanie plucks her headphones out of her ears, running her fingers through her blonde hair. Each strand is as delicate and shimmering as a spider’s web illuminated by the sun. She’s just started wearing makeup, and Anna thinks the blue smudges on her eyelids look out of place on her otherwise untouched face. “Why are we landing so soon?”
Anna takes a deep breath and rests her sweaty palm on top of Melanie’s hand. “I’m not sure, sweetie, but everything is going to be just fine.” Melanie realizes her mother’s hand is shaking. She responds by yanking her hand away and rolling her eyes. “God, Mom, you’re freaking me out.” She doesn’t like that her mother acts like a scared little child whenever she flies anywhere. She doesn’t like the way flying makes her look, her angular face all wrinkly and pale, her eyes cloudy behind her wire-rimmed glasses, that the sedatives make her voice so quiet and breathy.
When they fly together, Anna can see her older daughter wondering “Why are you always so afraid?” She thinks, “I don’t want to be afraid like you when I’m older.” Melanie is already the same height as her mother, and Anna hopes this is an indicator that she’ll keep growing into a strong, bold woman. This is what she is hoping for as she closes her eyes, takes a deep breath, and overhears the off-duty pilot explaining to her husband Mark, “It’s gotta be tailwinds. Sometimes, if the tailwinds are really strong, the flight time is much, much shorter than expected.” Mark replies, “Ah, tailwinds! But we weren’t supposed to land for another two hours.” She opens her eyes and glances across the aisle. The off-duty pilot shrugs, taking his glasses off his face and wiping them on his shirt. “It’s not totally out of the realm of possibility.”
“Tailwinds, sweetie!” Anna exclaims to her daughter, feeling calmer, wiser, more confident as she utters the words out loud. “It’s just strong tailwinds. That’s why the flight was so short. No reason to worry.”
“Yeah, okay, Mom.” She puts her headphones back in her ears. Tessa remains asleep, her face smoothed and relaxed from, Anna imagines, her pleasant, peaceful dreams. Actually, she’s dreaming her first grade teacher has turned into a golden retriever, and that she stands at the front of the classroom barking. The curly hair piled on top of her head reminds Anna of a halo, glowing in the light streaming through the scratched airplane window.
Static fills the cabin once again, and then the pilot’s voice: “Well, folks”—it annoys Anna when pilots say “folks”; it sounds condescending—”it appears we have a problem…an engine problem.” Melanie rests her headphones in her lap, her hair clinging to the cloth on her headrest, and she sits up a little bit straighter. “I’ve contacted the airport in Charleston, West Virginia, and they’ve agreed to clear a runway for us. So we should be landing there shortly.” He says the word “should” louder than the rest. This makes Anna nervous. “Please do not be alarmed and please do not open the emergency exits when we land.” More static. His voice fades out.
Anna thinks that the words “engine” and “problem” should not be put in the same sentence when suspended in the air, thousands of feet above the ground. She hears the off-duty pilot explain to Mark, “I’ve been flying for nine years, and I’ve never experienced any engine problems before.”
Mark nods and shifts around in his seat. He’s clearly agitated, glancing over at his family and then looking into the off-duty pilot’s eyes for reassurance. He feels the urge to switch seats with his wife, because he knows her anxiety always makes the girls scared. He glances past Anna and Melanie and sees that Tessa is still sleeping. He debates asking Anna to wake her up. He decides sleeping through this whole ordeal might not be the worst thing in the world. Melanie looks pale. “You okay?” Mark asks from across the aisle. She nods. Her obvious fear makes him feel raw, wounded, and protective all at once; it makes him wonder why he ever put up a fight about having children.
He recalls when Anna first told him she wanted children more than she wanted her next breath of air, how he rolled his eyes, telling her to stop being so dramatic. Months later, after the discussion about children had been closed, Anna found out she was pregnant. When her doctor called with the results, she sped over to Mark’s office, burst open the squeaky door, and nearly shouted the news. He feels foolish when he remembers feeling like he’d just slipped on an icy patch of sidewalk and crashed to the cold cement, the shock and pain traveling up his spine and throughout his body. He found it difficult to breathe. They’d only been married for ten months, he kept thinking. He wasn’t ready, he said over and over. He feels even more foolish when he thinks of how he’d started crying, dabbing at his eyes with a balled up Kleenex. Anna cried, too. She cried because Mark hadn’t embraced her, hadn’t said the things a soon-to-be-father are expected to say. But her tears quickly subsided, as she had the satisfaction of knowing that life would be growing inside her for the next nine months. She knew Mark would get used to the idea. His tears could not take away the connection she already felt with the developing fetus inside of her.
Now, thirteen years later, Mark glances sideways at his pale daughter, looks back on that man who sat in his office crying, and views him as a complete stranger.
Melanie turns to her mother. “Mom?” Her eyes, just like Mark’s, are wide and gray-blue—smooth, cold stones beneath thick eyelashes. She’s thinking about two things at once: her first kiss, which happened only a few weeks ago, and whether she will go to heaven or hell in the event that the one remaining engine fails. Akash, a tall, skinny Indian boy in her class, kissed her on the lips on the last day of seventh grade. He smelled strongly of cologne and she is now fairly certain she is in love with him, but she hasn’t told him yet. She wants to, more than anything, and she chokes back a sob when she realizes she might never be able to.
The plane lurches and Melanie feels her stomach twist. “Oh God, please, just let the pilot land this plane safely. I’m not ready to die yet,” she thinks, despite the fact her parents don’t believe in religion and never gave their daughters any sort of religious education. Anna and Mark seamlessly evolved into atheists over the years, never wanting their children to believe in something so…fictional, they always say. Anna is a chemist in a lab. Mark is an actuary. Anna and Mark wished for their children to believe in what’s real—evolution, numbers, chemical reactions. Yet these prayers, these pleas, form naturally in Melanie’s mind. The words just come to her, as if she’s prayed every night her whole life. As she rapidly twists a strand of hair around her index finger, she remembers when she stole her friend Gina’s science homework during study hall and copied the answers, knowing Gina was too shy and passive to say no. She remembers when she was babysitting her two-year-old next-door neighbor, and while she was on the phone with her friend, the toddler had crawled under the glass coffee table and smacked his head on the corner, hard. He needed stitches. She called Anna and together they rushed the boy to the hospital. They both remember the sterile white walls, the smell of antiseptic in the emergency room, Melanie’s tears of guilt. Tightening her seat belt, Melanie wonders if she might go to hell for this.
Anna realizes how stale the air smells and someone behind her starts crying. She turns to her husband, who squeezes her hand and then quickly lets go, so he isn’t blocking the aisle. His brow is furrowed and Anna thinks she sees little beads of sweat forming near his temples. All she can think is that she knew it. All these years, all of the torturous flights, all of the friends and family that told her her fear was irrational, impractical, and that she needed to get over it—all this time, she knew she had a reason to worry. She knew that someday she’d be on a plane, seeing death.
The flight attendant jerkily walks down the aisle once again, running her fingertips across the overhead bins to make sure they’re closed securely. Mark notices her shiny nametag, which reads “Silvia” next to a pair of wings. Silvia, he silently mouths, and stops breathing when an image of Silvia Johnson unexpectedly floats into his mind.
Anna notices him flinch, but attributes this to his nerves.
Mark hasn’t thought about Silvia, a friend-of-a-friend-of-a-friend that he met at a party his freshman year of college, in years. She’d gone back to his dorm with him one snowy night and they’d slept together, awkwardly exchanging phone numbers in the morning. He was a tall, lanky kid then, and had stopped shaving to make himself appear older, more collegiate, he thought. He never called her, but a month later, she’d called him up and told him she was pregnant. “Well…what are we going to do?” he’d asked, his voice barely above a whisper.
“I don’t know. I’m pretty sure I’m going to get it taken care of. I’m still deciding, though. I mean, I guess I’ll let you know if I, uh, change my mind, or something,” she said as her voice trailed off. He imagined her sitting on a brown leather couch when she called, tapping her foot on shiny hardwood floors and repeatedly tucking her red hair behind her ears. “Oh, okay. It’s really your decision, obviously. So yeah, let me know,” Mark responded. He felt he was off the hook, and couldn’t have been more relieved. That night, he used a fake ID—which said he was twenty-six, 200 pounds and from Honolulu, Hawaii—to go to a bar with two of his buddies. The three of them ordered pitcher after pitcher of cheap beer, tipping more generously as the night progressed and even singing karaoke when they recognized the songs. “To being single—and free,” Mark had toasted, and the three of them clinked their glasses together, guzzling down their beer and burping.
That was twenty-one years ago. He’d never heard from Silvia again.
Now Mark is struck with the realization that if Silvia had decided against an abortion, she might not have called him. He could have a twenty-one-year-old son or daughter out there somewhere. He wonders if he or she would have red hair or brown hair, blue eyes or…whatever color eyes Silvia had.
He looks at his daughters once again, and imagines them growing up without a father. They needed him. They needed him for math homework help, to watch their dance recitals, to cook them his famous egg boats—hard-boiled eggs, sliced in half without the yolk—on Saturday mornings. Tessa needed him when she lost her first baby tooth; before she could slip it under her pillow for the tooth fairy, she dropped it somewhere on the carpet of her bedroom, immediately starting to sob. Mark had spent a full hour on his hands and knees combing the carpet before he found that baby tooth for Tessa. Then he thinks about the plane crashing and crumpling into the ground, as easily as crunching a ball of aluminum foil, and he wonders if all these years, Silvia has been raising a child alone.
Anna sees her husband cover his eyes with his thick fingers. She asks him if he’s okay. “Yes, I’m fine,” he responds. “But I think you should wake her up,” he decides quickly, as he nods toward Tessa.
“I think we should let her sleep,” Anna responds. “There’s no reason to scare her.”
“Did you think this plane might not make it?” He leans closer to her.
“Don’t say that!” Anna hisses, hoping Melanie didn’t hear, and Anna turns to rub her bony shoulder in a comforting way. She doesn’t pull away. Rather, she rests her head on her mother’s shoulder like she hasn’t done since she was little, and Anna inhales her scent of strawberry lip gloss. The weight of her head makes her feel more awake, it lessens the cushion of the sedative, and her pulse quickens even more.
“Wake up your sister,” Anna blurts loudly. Melanie pokes and shoves her sister, who then jolts awake. “What? Huh?” Tessa says wearily, shaking her curls out of her face and rubbing her eyes, yawning.
“The plane’s about to crash so we wanted to wake you up.” Melanie has always been the brutally honest one.
“Don’t scare her!” Anna takes a deep breath and explains, “No, no, honey, that’s not it at all—” but Tessa has already started crying. She wants to slip back into her dream about the golden retriever. When she locks eyes with her mother, she can see her fear, her trembling hands, and she starts crying even harder. Anna’s trying to be brave for her girls, but she can’t.
Mark sees this and feels very guilty for suggesting waking her. “Girls,” he starts in what he considers a soothing voice, but he’s cut off by a screaming toddler sitting in front of him. He clears his throat and tries again. “Girls, I love you more than anything in the world, and no one could ever do anything to take me away from you,” he tells his children before resting his head against the back of the soft seat and closing his eyes. “I’ve always been there for you, right? And I always will,” he adds quietly, his chest rising and falling steadily. Anna is touched by his outburst of affection, as he rarely says such emotional things. She assumes that it’s the terror of the situation that’s making him voice his love.
Only a matter of minutes pass before wheels touch the runway with a thump and the plane lurches, making the seatbelt tighten across Anna’s hip bones. Laughter escapes her lips, and she’s not sure why. “Welcome to Charleston, folks,” the pilot announces. “Two of our three engines were failing. We wouldn’t have made it all the way to Milwaukee.” Fire engines line the runway. It seems as if the entire cabin breathes one sigh of relief. Couples are hugging each other. Sitting in front of Anna is an older African American man with gray hair, who kisses his grandson on the forehead. Quickly she squeezes Melanie and Tessa’s hands, noticing that her younger daughter’s palms are clammy. She feels the color come back into her cheeks, and she turns to her husband expectantly, wanting to hold him more than anything. To Anna’s surprise, he hasn’t turned to face her at all; he looks as if he’s still in a daze, staring at the tray table in front of him. FASTEN SEATBELT WHILE SEATED and USE BOTTOM CUSHION FOR FLOTATION, he reads over and over. Anxiety and relief tug at her, and she imagines hitting him, or kicking him, screaming at him—anything to get him to look at her.
“That was quite a flight!” the off-duty pilot grunts. Mark half-smiles at him but doesn’t say anything. His mind feels cloudy.
Everyone files off the plane and into the modest airport, where they are told to wait for further information. Tessa says she’s hungry, but there are no restaurants around. Anna stops at a convenience store near the bathrooms and buys her a Snickers bar, and a bag of M&M’s for Melanie. While she’s paying, she notices a shelf of red t-shirts that read, “Everything’s Relative in West Virginia.” She thinks this is clever.
Mark is staring out the window at planes taxiing, his arms folded across his chest, and Melanie and Tessa are making themselves comfortable in a row of leather chairs when Anna gives her children their candy. Melanie picks at the M&M’s with one hand and begins writing a letter with the other. She’s found a piece of notebook paper and purple marker in her backpack, and she’s decided to write Akash a love letter before she loses courage. Pressing the dry marker to the paper, she writes in her nicest, curliest handwriting, “Dearest Akash, I’ve just had a near death experience and our kiss flashed before my eyes. I’ve realized I can wait no longer to confess my love…” She smirks to herself, admiring her poetic abilities.
Slowly lowering herself onto the chair next to Mark, Anna wraps her arms around her husband’s neck and kisses him on the cheek. He laces his fingers between hers out of habit, still feeling uneasy, as if he’s dangling in the air, helpless. “What’s bothering you?” Anna asks him.
“Nothing, nothing.” He shakes his head vigorously. “I’m just a little shaken up, is all.”
They sit and wait. Anna pulls out her cell phone and calls the kennel, telling them that her two cocker spaniels, Sadie and Tilly, will need to stay a day longer, as her plane had to make an emergency landing in West Virginia and she and her family won’t be home as scheduled. She taps her foot. She pops orange Tic Tacs from her purse into her mouth. Tessa has migrated to Anna’s lap, her head against her mother’s chest, her pink-shoed feet against her father’s lap. “I’ll be right back, sweetie,” he tells Tessa, as he gently moves her feet from his lap.
“Where are you going?” she asks him, her eyes beginning to water.
“Just right over here, by the windows, sweetie. I have to make a quick call.” The leather seat squeaks as he rises, and he searches his pockets for his phone.
“Who do you need to call?” Anna asks him. He stares are her blankly.
“Don’t go, Daddy, don’t leave,” Tessa cries, rubbing her eyes with her fists. “Stay here.”
He sits, so easily defeated, rubbing her feet as she props them up, once again, on his lap. “What are you writing?” Anna asks Melanie.
“A love letter,” she replies simply.
“Oh,” Anna sighs, curiously. “To whom?”
“A boy in my class. You don’t know him.” She’s writing furiously, stopping every few seconds to look up and smile.
After three hours of sitting, they are told that the airline will pay for their hotel for the night, and will put them on a flight home to Milwaukee early the next morning. A cab pulls up to the curb as Anna and Mark drag their luggage and their children’s luggage outside into the dark humidity. Anna ushers her girls into its musty-smelling interior, where the leather seats stick to Anna’s thighs. “The Comfort Inn, please,” Mark tells the cab driver. When they reach the hotel, Mark tips the cab driver generously. They check in, ride the elevator to the fifth floor, and as soon as Anna opens the door to their room, Melanie and Tessa plop down on one of the double beds, exhausted. It’s close to ten. Anna’s exhausted, too.
Melanie and Tessa crawl under the comforter and soon, Anna hears her older daughter snoring, her blonde hair tangled across her face. Her younger daughter sleeps very close to her sister, facing the other direction, her curly hair brushing her sister’s nose. They look so cozy, and Anna just wants to jump in with them. So she crawls into bed and strokes their hair, kisses their cheeks, and pulls the comforter tighter around the three of them, like a cocoon. Her husband is in the bathroom washing his hands, and emerges wearing just his jeans. He’s barefoot and shirtless, but says he’s going to run down to the front desk to see if he can have a complimentary toothbrush. “I seem to have forgotten mine.” He shrugs. Anna puts a finger to her lips to signal shhh, he needs to be quiet, the girls are sleeping. He smiles and turns the lights off as he quietly shuts the door behind him.
Anna won’t learn until years later that while he is in the hallway, he pulls out his cell phone from his back jeans pocket and dials 411. He knows it’s a long shot, but his fingers seem to move automatically. He shoves his free hand deep into his pocket. “City and state please?” an automated voice asks.
“Madison, Wisconsin,” Mark says clearly.
“How can I help you?” the nasal voice asks after a few seconds.
Leaning against the wall, which feels rough and cool on his spine, he asks, “Do you have a listing for Silvia Johnson?”
There’s a long pause. Then the voice says, “Yes. I’ll connect you.”
He presses his palms flat against the wall, clamping the cell phone between his ear and shoulder. After just two rings, he snaps his cell phone shut.
As Anna drifts to sleep next to her girls, she feels uneasy, and realizes she has never seen her husband so shaken up before, so vacant. Ever since they got off the plane, Mark’s mind has been in a different place and time. Everyone deals with stress differently, she thinks. And they have never before experienced something so life-threatening, so terrifying, together. But still, he worries her. She thinks of how he didn-t turn to look at her when their plane touched the runway safely.
Anna jolts awake when she hears the door shut behind Mark. She sits up, yawns, and stumbles toward the other double bed.
“Did you get your toothbrush?” she whispers.
“Yeah, I got it.”
It’s very dark, and she has to squint to see her husband’s fuzzy outline. His face is a blur. The bed creaks beneath their weight.
“Goodnight,” Mark whispers. Anna rolls over and rests her head on his chest. “I can hear your heart beating,” she murmurs. Nodding, Mark runs his fingers through his wife’s hair.
Hours later, long after Anna’s body has relaxed and she is deep in sleep, Mark lies in bed with his eyes open. Moonlight streams through their translucent curtains and casts a soft sheen on the TV screen. But other than that, their room is as dark and suffocating as the bottom of the ocean. He hears three different breathing patterns, an airplane flying overhead, a car honking in the distance. As he reaches for his wife’s hand, which lies limp at her side, a chill passes through him, and a silent, invisible presence tiptoes around their bed.
Emily Grekin holds a B.A. in English with a subconcentration in Creative Writing from the University of Michigan. During her senior year, she wrote an 80-page fiction thesis and was a semifinalist for the University of Michigan’s Hopwood Awards for Creative Writing. She recently moved to Athens, Ohio to pursue her M.A. in Creative Writing at Ohio University, and she began reading for the New Ohio Review in September.