Okay, his mind agreed. No problem; I can quit. I can quit anyttime I want. Was it maybe Lifebuoy? No — that’s soap. Sorry. Lovebite? Lovelorn?
Brian snapped his seatbelt shut, leaned back, closed his eyes, and smelled a perfume he could not quite name.
That was when the flight attendant spoke to him. Of course: Brian Engle had a theory that they were taught — in a highly secret post-graduate course, perhaps called Teasing the Geese — to wait until the passenger closed his or her eyes before offering some not-quite-essential service. And, of course, they were to wait until they were reasonably sure the passenger was asleep before waking them to ask if he would like a blanket or a pillow.
“Pardon me...” she began, then stopped. Brian saw her eyes go from the epaulets on the shoulders of his black jacket to the hat, with its meaningless squiggle of scrambled eggs, on the empty seat beside him.
She rethought herself and started again.
“Pardon me, Captain, would you like coffee or orange juice?” Brian was faintly amused to see he had flustered her a little. She gestured toward the table at the front of the compartment, just below the small rectangular movie screen. There were two ice-buckets on the table. The slender green neck of a wine bottle poked out of each. “Of course, I also have champagne.”
(Love Bo that’s not it close but no cigar)
the champagne, but only briefly. “Nothing, thanks,” he said. “And no in-flight service. I think I’ll sleep all the way to Boston. How’s the weather look?”
“Clouds at 20,000 feet from the Great Plains all the way to Boston, but no problem. We’ll be at thirty-six. Oh, and we’ve had reports of the aurora borealis over the Mojave Desert. You might want to stay awake for that.”
Brian raised his eyebrows. “You’re kidding. The aurora borealis over California? And at this time of year?”
“That’s what we’ve been told.”
“Somebody’s been taking too many cheap drugs,” Brian said, and she laughed. “I think I’ll just snooze, thanks.”
“Very good, Captain.” She hesitated a moment longer. “You’re the captain who just lost his wife, aren’t you?”
The headache pulsed and snarled, but he made himself smile. This woman — who was really no more than a girl — meant no harm. “She was my ex-wife, but otherwise, yes. I am.”
“I’m awfully sorry for your loss.”
“Have I flown with you before, sir?”
His smile reappeared briefly. “I don’t think so. I’ve been on overseas for the past four years or so.” And because it seemed somehow necessary, he offered his hand. “Brian Engle.”
She shook it. “Melanie Trevor.”
Engle smiled at her again, then leaned back and closed his eyes once more. He let himself drift, but not sleep — the pre-flight announcements, followed by the take-off roll, would only wake him up again. There would be time enough to sleep when they were in the air.
Flight 29, like most red-eye flights, left promptly — Brian reflected that was high on their meager list of attractions. The plane was a 767, a little over half full. There were half a dozen other passengers in first class. None of them looked drunk or rowdy to Brian. That was good. Maybe he really would sleep all the way to Boston.
He watched Melanie Trevor patiently as she pointed out the exit doors, demonstrated how to use the little gold cup if there was a pressure loss (a procedure Brian had been reviewing in his own mind, and with some urgency, not long ago), and how to inflate the life vest under the seat. When the plane was airborne, she came by his seat and asked him again if she could get him something to drink. Brian shook his head, thanked her, then pushed the button which caused his seat to recline. He closed his eyes and promptly fell asleep.
He never saw Melanie Trevor again.
About three hours after Flight 29 took off, a little girl named Dinah Bellman woke up and asked her Aunt Vicky if she could have a drink of water.
Aunt Vicky did not answer, so Dinah asked again. When there was still no answer, she reached over to touch her aunt’s shoulder, but she was already quite sure that her hand would touch nothing but the back of an empty seat, and that was what happened. Dr Feldman had told her that children who were blind from birth often developed a high sensitivity — almost a kind of radar — to the presence or absence of people in their immediate area, but Dinah hadn’t really needed the information. She knew it was true. It didn’t always work, but it usually did... especially if the person in question was her Sighted Person.
Well, she’s gone to the bathroom and she’ll be right back, Dinah thought, but she felt an odd, vague disquiet settle over her just the same. She hadn’t come awake all at once; it had been a slow process, like a diver kicking her way to the surface of a lake. If Aunt Vicky, who had the window seat, had brushed by her to get to the aisle in the last two or three minutes, Dinah should have felt her.
So she went sooner, she told herself. Probably she had to Number Two — It’s really no big deal, Dinah. Or maybe she stopped to talk with somebody on her way back.
Except Dinah couldn’t hear anyone talking in the big airplane’s main cabin; only the steady soft drone of the jet engines. Her feeling of disquiet grew.
The voice of Miss Lee, her therapist (except Dinah always thought of her as her blind teacher), spoke up in her head: You mustn’t be afraid to be afraid, Dinah — all children are afraid from time to time, especially in situations that are new to them. That goes double for children who are blind. Believe me, I know. And Dinah did believe her, because, like Dinah herself, Miss Lee had been blind since birth. Don’t give up your fear... but don’t give in to it, either. Sit still and try to reason things out. You’ll be surprised how often it works.
Especially in situations that are new to them.
Well, that certainly fits; this was the first time Dinah had ever flown in anything, let alone coast to coast in a huge transcontinental jetliner.
Try to reason it out.
Well, she had awakened in a strange place to find her Sighted Person gone. Of course that was scary, even if you knew the absence was only temporary — after all, your Sighted Person couldn’t very well decide to pop off to the nearest Taco Bell because she had the munchies when she was shut up in an airplane flying at 37,000 feet. As for the strange silence in the cabin... well, this was the red-eye, after all. The other passengers were probably sleeping.
All of them? the worried part of her mind asked doubtfully. ALL of them are sleeping? Can that be?
Then the answer came to her: the movie. The ones who were awake were watching the in-flight movie. Of course.
A sense of almost palpable relief swept over her. Aunt Vicky had told her the movie was Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan in When Harry Met Sally, and said she planned to watch it herself... if she could stay awake, that was.
Dinah ran her hand lightly over her aunt’s seat, feeling for her headphones, but they weren’t there. Her fingers touched a paperback book instead. One of the romance novels Aunt Vicky liked to read, no doubt — tales of the days when men were men and women weren’t, she called them.
Dinah’s fingers went a little further and happened on something else — smooth, fine-grained leather. A moment later she felt a zipper, and a moment after that she felt the strap.
It was Aunt Vicky’s purse.
Dinah’s disquiet returned. The earphones weren’t on Aunt Vicky’s seat, but her purse was. All the traveller’s checks, except for a twenty tucked deep into Dinah’s own purse, were in there — Dinah knew, because she had heard Mom and Aunt Vicky discussing them before they left the house in Pasadena.
Would Aunt Vicky go off to the bathroom and leave her purse on the seat? Would she do that when her travelling companion was not only ten, not only asleep, but blind?
Dinah didn’t think so.
Don’t give up your fear... but don’t give in to it, either. Sit still and try to reason things out.
But she didn’t like that empty seat, and she didn’t like the silence of the plane. It made perfect sense to her that most of the people would be asleep, and that the ones who were awake would be keeping as quiet as possible out of consideration for the rest, but she still didn’t like it. An animal, one with extremely sharp teeth and claws, awakened and started to snarl inside of her head. She knew the name of that animal; it was panic, and if she didn’t control it fast, she might do something which would embarrass both her and Aunt Vicky.
When I can see, when the doctors in Boston fix my eyes, I won’t have to go through stupid stuff like this.
This was undoubtedly true, but it was absolutely no help to her right now.
Dinah suddenly remembered that, after they sat down, Aunt Vicky had taken her hand, folded all the fingers but the pointer under, and then guided that one finger to the side of her seat. The controls were there — only a few of them, simple, easy to remember. There were two little wheels you could use once you put on the headphones — one switched around to the different audio channels; the other controlled the volume. The small rectangular switch controlled the light over her seat. You won’t need that one, Aunt Vicky had said with a smile in her voice. At least, not yet. The last one was a square button — when you pushed that one, a flight attendant came.
Dinah’s finger touched this button now, and skated over its slightly convex surface.
Do you really want to do this? she asked herself, and the answer came back at once. Yeah, I do.
She pushed the button and heard the soft chime. Then she waited.
No one came.
There was only the soft, seemingly eternal whisper of the jet engines. No one spoke. No one laughed (Guess that movie isn’t as funny as Aunt Vicky thought it would be, Dinah thought). No one coughed. The seat beside her, Aunt Vicky’s seat, was still empty, and no flight attendant bent over her in a comforting little envelope of perfume and shampoo and faint smells of make-up to ask Dinah if she could get her something — a snack, or maybe that drink of water.
Only the steady soft drone of the jet engines.
The panic animal was yammering louder than ever. To combat it, Dinah concentrated on focussing that radar gadget, making it into a kind of invisible cane she could jab out from her seat here in the middle of the main cabin. She was good at that; at times, when she concentrated very hard, she almost believed she could see through the eyes of others. If she thought about it hard enough, wanted to hard enough. Once she had told Miss Lee about this feeling, and Miss Lee’s response had been uncharacteristically sharp. Sight-sharing is a frequent fantasy of the blind, she’d said. Particularly of blind children. Don’t ever make the mistake of relying on that feeling, Dinah, or you’re apt to find yourself in traction after falling down a flight of stairs or stepping in front of a car.
So she had put aside her efforts to “sight-share,” as Miss Lee had called it, and on the few occasions when the sensation stole over her again — that she was seeing the world, shadowy, wavery, but there — through her mother’s eyes or Aunt Vicky’s eyes, she had tried to get rid of it... as a person who fears he is losing his mind will try to block out the murmur of phantom voices. But now she was afraid and so she felt for others, sensed for others, and did not find them.
Now the terror was very large in her, the yammering of the panic animal very loud. She felt a cry building up in her throat and clamped her teeth against it. Because it would not come out as a cry, or a yell; if she let it out, it would exit her mouth as a firebell scream.
I won’t scream, she told herself fiercely. I won’t scream and embarrass Aunt Vicky. I won’t scream and wake up all the ones who are asleep and scare all the ones who are awake and they’ll all come running and say look at the scared little girl, look at the scared little blind girl.
But now that radar sense — that part of her which evaluated all sorts of vague sensory input and which sometimes did seem to see through the eyes of others (no matter what Miss Lee said) — was adding to her fear rather than alleviating it.
Because that sense was telling her there was nobody within its circle of effectiveness.
Nobody at all.
Brian Engle was having a very bad dream. In it, he was once again piloting Flight 7 from Tokyo to LA, but this time the leak was much worse. There was a palpable feeling of doom in the cockpit; Steve Searles was weeping as he ate a Danish pastry.
If you’re so upset, how come you’re eating? Brian asked. A shrill, teakettle whistling had begun to fill the cockpit — the sound of the pressure leak, he reckoned. This was silly, of course — leaks were almost always silent until the blowout occurred — but he supposed in dreams anything was possible.
Because I love these things, and I’m never going to get to eat another one, Steve said, sobbing harder than ever.
Then, suddenly, the shrill whistling sound stopped. A smiling, relieved flight attendant — it was, in fact, Melanie Trevor — appeared to tell him the leak had been found and plugged. Brian got up and followed her through the plane to the main cabin, where Anne Quinlan Engle, his ex-wife, was standing in a little alcove from which the seats had been removed. Written over the window beside her was the cryptic and somehow ominous phrase SHOOTING STARS ONLY. It was written in red, the color of danger.
Anne was dressed in the dark-green uniform of an American Pride flight attendant, which was strange — she was an advertising executive with a Boston agency, and had always looked down her narrow, aristocratic nose at the stews with whom her husband flew. Her hand was pressed against a crack in the fuselage.
See, darling? she said proudly. It’s all taken care of. It doesn’t even matter that you hit me. I have forgiven you.
Don’t do that, Anne! he cried, but it was already too late. A fold appeared in the back of her hand, mimicking the shape of the crack in the fuselage. It grew deeper as the pressure differential sucked her hand relentlessly outward. Her middle finger went through first, then the ring finger, then the first finger and her pinky. There was a brisk popping sound, like a champagne cork being drawn by an overeager waiter, as her entire hand was pulled through the crack in the airplane.
Yet Anne went on smiling.
It’s L’Envoi, darling, she said as her arm began to disappear. Her hair was escaping the clip which held it back and blowing around her face in a misty cloud. It’s what I’ve always worn, don’t you remember?
He did... now he did. But now it didn’t matter.
Anne, come back! he screamed.
She went on smiling as her arm was sucked slowly into the emptiness outside the plane. It doesn’t hurt at all, Brian — believe me.