As the plane rose steadily into the sky, water vapor streaked up the glass like tears in reverse. Kiya, her head resting on the cool plastic near the pane, swore she heard the movement of the rivulet—a dry slither, like a snake through dry summer glass.
A trick of her imagination; impossible to hear anything over the rumbling of the giant engines. She liked that about flying. The isolation. Thirty thousand feet from everything, the world hidden behind a shield of fluffy white cotton clouds. Only the other passengers in existence, and each of them pigeonholed into assigned seats and lost in their dreams or books or vacant thoughts. Every person a microcosm of their own, and none of them touching Kiya, a realm onto herself.
Her eyes fluttered closed, mind drowsy with the reverberations of technology singing through her bones. She drifted.
Children, dark with summer sun and woodland adventure dirt, trampled through the kitchen, all three loud, hungry, grinning. A woman, older, blonde, smiled back, handed them each a sandwich thick with peanut butter and leaking gobs of apple jelly.
The man sat at the table, reviewing tables of numbers on a tablet, oblivious to the domestic bliss happening all around him. From the tablet holding his attention came the harsh bleeping of an alarm. A small pop-up box: Leave for Airport.
He rose, straightened his tie, gave the woman a perfunctory kiss. Never even bothered to say good-bye to the kids.
But then, he only planned to be gone two days. How could he know he’d never see them again?
Kiya jerked, not awake—she’d have needed to be asleep for that—but aware. Her eyes flitted about the cabin against her volition, searching out the thing she desperately wanted not to find.
He sat in the aisle seat four rows ahead, face only partially visible, but enough to recognize, to know. He’d be dead before daybreak tomorrow.
Kiya always considered flying her sanctuary, the one place the fragments of others’ lives failed to find her. And now, she’d lost even that small reprieve. But why?
The lump in her throat solid, she swallowed hard to dislodge it. She needed to figure this out; it must be important. But before she even finished the thought, her head lolled, came to a stop propped again near the window. Her eyes fluttered closed.
Sunlight tinted pink by the gauzy curtains poured over the face of a boy with the soft rounded features of youth. A strong jaw, regal nose—he’d be stunning once he matured.
The woman wore her years well. At least twice as many as the teen in her bed, beauty had been softened by time, rubbed soft and comfortable. Until you looked into her eyes. There the years showed, the time hard, cutting glass. Her gaze was pure envy when she glanced once at the sleeping boy before slipping out of his arms and into the bathroom.
Just another conquest. She’d be out of the city before his parents found him, before he realized he’d been abandoned.
She felt nothing as the motel room door clicked shut behind her.
This time when Kiya jerked back to herself, her bony elbow caught the book held by the man beside her, sent it spiraling. She barely noticed as she cast about in a frenzy.
There, a few rows behind, on the other side of the aisle. The woman wore a silk blouse and dark brown slacks. She looked normal, bored.
Kiya knew better. Recognized the predator eyes.
People tried to fill the emptiness within them all sorts of ways, and Kiya had witnessed many: work, drugs, sex. But, she’d never before been linked to someone so empty.
It left her feeling cold to the core.
“Hey,” spoke the man beside her, book forgotten at his feet, “are you okay?”
For a moment, Kiya just blinked at the stranger, unable to process his words, to recognize he meant them for her. Then, with a sharp shake of her head, the fuzz cleared. “Fine,” Kiya croaked, then swallowed. “I’m fine. Thank you.”
The man, pudgy with kind, watery blue eyes and only a puffy ring of dirty snow hair, looked unconvinced, but after a brief pause where his eyes never left her face, he retrieved his book and retreated within its pages.
Kiya released a soft sigh, closed her eyes to relieve the headache building, and once again floated away, carried like a leaf trapped in a stream along the lives of others.
The man with the book sat in a recliner, old but well cared for, with a purring cat in his lap. The cat, a circle of marmalade contentment, looked up once and blinked its pumpkin eyes before returning to its slumber.
“Do you think it will work this time?” The voice, female, came from someone out of frame. However, even without visual cues, the tone, all restrained hope and tangling resignation, made the speaker’s view clear.
The man spoke, his hands deftly stroking the cat, “She’s asking for help. It’s a step. We have to try.”
A small woman, her hands frail and a-twitter like dancing birds, became visible. “I know, but I wish…” she trailed off, one hand coming to rest briefly on the man’s shoulder. “You hate flying.”
He caught her fleeing limb, kissed her palm, his eyes tender and gentle. “I’ll bring a book. I love you, Carmen.”
“I love you too, Eric.”
Kiya finally understood.
Turning in her seat, she looked at the man, at Eric, until he felt her gaze and put down the book.
“Something wrong?” Rather than annoyed at her intrusion, he seemed concerned. “You need me to call an attendant?”
Kiya wished she’d introduced herself before, exchanged pleasantries, given some small part of herself, if only her name, to this man. Made some connection, no matter how brief to someone so truly good.
She’d seen so much pain, so many unappreciated, shallow lives, but she’d never touched someone like this: a man who deserved to be honored, who should not be allowed to fade from the tapestry of the world.
Throat like a vice around the words she wished to speak, she awkwardly reached out a hand, rested it against his cheek. His memories flooded her: Katherine, the child lost, but finally ready to get help; Carmen, the wife he’d loved since grade school and won over in college; the friends and family and jobs, and pets, of a man who lived life well and graciously.
The images swept through her like a brook overflowing its banks, washed away her own darker memories.
No one had ever loved Kiya, the strange girl left on a doorstep, raised by a long line of strangers. Even grown, she’d found creating true relationships hard, drifted through lives on the currents of other people’s experiences. Clung to the unsavored moments of the soon-to-be-dead because she’d failed to make strong memories of her own.
As hollow in her own way as the woman in the silk blouse.
Kiya felt no fear despite what must be coming. She knew, felt deep in her bones that her spot, this particular seat among the many, would be spared. If she stayed here, in this place, she’d survive the plane crash, go on about her simple, cursory life.
Or, she might make a different choice, create a ripple that mattered.
Eric still watched her, confusion furrowing his brow. He made no move to shake off Kiya’s touch. “Miss,” he said, worry darkening his eyes, “if you need help—”
“Change places with me, please.”
“What?” He continued to watch her with concern. “If you’re sick, I can—”
“No,” Kiya said, struggling against the rising tide of another vision. “Just a nervous flier. Being near the window’s making it worse.”
“Ah.” He smiled, compassion and humor replacing the anxiety. “No problem.”
He rose swiftly, helped her up as they swapped places. Once she’d settled in, he rested a hand on her arm, the contact comforting and brief like a cool summer wind. “Is that better?”
Kiya felt it, a shift in the currents of the visions battering her to be seen. Among them now, she’d find herself. “Much. Thank you, Eric.”
“How—” he started, but the question became a gasp and then a scream as the plane began to plummet.
Kiya closed her eyes and gave in, let herself be dragged down by the undertow of her final vision. And found peace.
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