“Are you going to sit down?” He asked. When she finally did, she sat with such force that she knocked his half-empty Coke can sideways, splashing sticky syrup over the tray table.
“Shit.” He cursed, dabbing at it with two worthless napkins before finally pushing the call button.
The tall, slightly angular flight attendant sidled down the aisle, her hands swishing to and fro as she seemed to conduct passengers from standing to seated positions.
“Yes sir? How can I help?” Her voice was sweet, practiced, slightly on edge.
“She…I mean, I spilled.” He mumbled, his eyes cast down at the pooling brown liquid like an embarrassed child.
“Oh. I see.” She turned quickly, retreated to a silver cart, and gracefully fluttered back, a medium stack of off-white squares clenched between pale fingertips. As she patted at the liquid, he noticed her nails. The tips were dark green, silvered at the edges, and crisp. The bases were crimson, or maybe more of a deep scarlet. She hummed slightly. Jingle Bells. He sat helplessly and watched her mop quickly, test the nearly empty can for remnants, and hurry back to important upper aisle work.
“See what I mean?” He asked, turning to his companion, his eyes roving hers for recognition. “We just need to relax. Everything will be fine.”
She stood again. He sighed. The buzz of engines and fans and headphones filled his airspace, and he placed two cupped hands over his ears. Closing his eyes, he pushed his head down onto the tray table, feeling the cool plastic on his sweaty forehead.
“Ma’am?” The flight attendant had returned. She brushed his shoulder and he startled, sitting back hard in his seat and nearly toppling the fresh can of Coke she’d placed on the table. Behind him, a woman cursed softly. The flight attendant looked quickly, gathered the napkins from under his sweating can, and turned to mop up the coffee which now oozed onto her patent leather pumps.
“I…I’m so sorry.” He grunted between the seatbacks, receiving little more than a meek “humph” in response.
“Ma’am? I’m going to need you to take your seat.” The flight attendant stated with composed authority.
“It’s just that…” The woman whispered.
“Just what, Ma’am?” The festive tipped fingers twisted blonde locks into tight rivulets in the aisle.
“Just…I can’t see her.”
“See who?” It was more of an accusation, less of a question, and a whole lotta sass.
“Nobody.” The man answered for her, pulling at the thick black belt encircling his companion’s waist and quickly depositing her into her seat.
“Is everything okay here?” The flight attendant asked, her patience ebbing.
“It’s fine.” The man deflected.
“It’s not.” The woman countered.
“It’s fine.” He repeated. His look signalled something more than a simple marital spat. Given her decades of experience, the attendant smiled cooly and strode forward to the nearest crew station. When she reached the jump seat, she pulled the thick leather seat base down, sat heavily, and buckled her shoulder belt, all the while staring daggers into the eyes of the distraught man.
He cradled his Coke between two burly hands, the cool sweat wicking along calloused fingers. The woman started to rise, her anxiety peaking. He pulled her back down.
“Ladies and Gentlemen, this is your Captain speaking…” A voice broke in, silencing any attempts at protestation. “As you know, we’ve encountered a bit of unforeseen in-flight activity, so if you will please remain in your seats with your seatbelt fastened until we are safely on the ground, it would be greatly appreciated.”
“See,” the man hissed, his hand pressing heavily upon hers, anchoring it to the armrest. “We have to stay in our seats. Everything will be fine. She is fine.”
“I can’t see her.” She whined, her voice quivering, desperate.
“She’s fine. It’s not like she could go anywhere.” He huffed. She started crying. He held her hand tighter. Across the aisle, all eyes were on them. The flight attendant was still staring.
“Quiet, please. You’re scaring the other passengers.”
“I want to see her.”
“She’s fine. Jesus. She’s only been out of your sight for a few minutes. Would you just relax.”
“I can’t. Not till I know she's okay.”
The roar of the engines seemed to swell; the nose dipped slightly. They were descending. He turned towards the window. It was pitch black and small pockets of what looked like white string lights seemed to smatter the countryside below. As the plane sunk, the lights grew brighter, coalesced, seemed to meld into masses of brilliant sparkles. Colors appeared, blue, green, purple. The empty fields gave way to twisting roadways and corridors of houses, commercial buildings, supermarkets. And soon the brilliance of the landing strip was illuminated, the fluorescent glow ushering the plane onward, downward, toward the safety of the terminal.
“Please, I have to see her.” The woman cried out.
“Would you shut her up.” Someone called from the back of the plane.
“You shut up!” The woman shouted, her voice thick with fear, frustration.
“Be quiet.” He hissed, his hand slipping over her mouth, his fingers cold from the can. “We’re almost down.”
She twisted her head side to side, her mouth opening as she struggled to scream, cry out, call to her, bring her back. Anything. “Let me go!” She demanded, her light pink nails raking his sinewy forearms. Small streams of blood formed tracks along the bulging veins. He wrenched his hands back and started to unbuckle his belt. Ahead, a glare from the flight attendant interrupted his efforts, and he relaxed back into his seat.
The cabin lights dimmed. The landing gear thunked into place. They dropped steadily, and in minutes, rubber met runway. Knifing through the dark, the plane safely taxied alongside the terminal. As he continued to hold her tightly, her strength waned. Soon she ceased fighting altogether.
“I just want to see her.” The woman sobbed quietly, her head lolling back and forth. "I can't see her. Where is she?" Her auburn hair twisted into spindly nests against the leather-backed seat. Her mascara ran. Her lips were cracked, pale, gaped open as sobs wracked her body. Her head lolled sideways, collapsing onto his shoulder as he struggled to maintain control over her hands and offer comfort simultaneously.
Still the plane taxied. In the dim cabin, the glow of cell phones could be seen throughout the plane, the shadows dancing along the overhead bins, spilling out like sconces amidst rigid figures and sweaty seatbacks. The craft was overbooked. The rabble grew restless. He turned his head to the passengers across the aisle, the flash function of one phone in particular was pointed directly at his face.
“Turn that off, asshole.” He demanded.
“No way, buddy.” The defiant videographer chided, his arm stretching out into the aisle as he danced the bright LED light over the ensnared couple.
“If you don’t shut that off right now, I’ll get up and shut it off for you.” The man suggested, the rage dripping from each word as he stared directly into the eyes of the defiant vouyer.
“Last time I checked, it’s a free country, prick.” The man countered, his voice wavering slightly as he saw the flight attendant burning lasers through his forehead. With a deep sigh, he settled back, turned off the flash, and stared into the blank screen on the headrest in front of him.
“I…want…to…see…” The woman wailed, wrenching her mouth from his shoulder. Froth and spittle glazed a dark circle on his ivy green shirt. He tried to cover her mouth again, but missed, his hand grazing her cheek as she shouted the final word “Her” into the shuddering plane.
They had nearly reached the terminal but were waiting for ground crew assistance before disembarking began. In the distance, sirens could be heard. A fire truck rounded a corner of the terminal followed by the lolling red and blue lights of two police vehicles.
In a flurry, she raised both arms and brought them down heavily into his chest, her elbows catching him just under the diaphragm as she launched up and into the aisle. He hadn’t even seen her remove her belt. Like lightning spit from a glass bottle, she flew towards the front of the plane, her legs churning as she shrieked. The flight attendant stood, barring her path. Passengers cowered. Somewhere in the distance, the jet bridge thunked into the side of the plane, machinery whirred, and locks were opened.
The cabin remained dim. He had risen, filling the aisle with his bulk, and the woman stood, arms stretched front to back across the center of the plane like a cornered wildcat.
“Get off me!” She shouted, even though no one was even touching her.
“Just calm down.” He entreated, stepping closer and driving her toward the front of the plane.
“Where the hell is she!” The woman shouted, her lip curling tight as she reared back and launched a targeted haymaker at the flight attendant. Experience again took hold, and the seasoned professional sidestepped with remarkable swiftness. As she pivoted, she thrust her left arm out and under the elbow of the irate woman. With her right leg, she slid under the woman’s light, but adrenaline charged form, and hefted her up and over in a remarkable judo throw.
“Hi—Ya!” She finished, the sobbing, wailing woman suddenly quiet as she met the light grey carpet of the aisle with spectacular force.
“Wow.” The man encouraged, stepping in close and placing one knee on the woman’s upper back. There was hardly a need. She was out now. Her body was limp and motionless. But he was past taking chances. As he held her in place, he turned and looked around the cabin. Phones in every aisle were out, flashes illuminated the space, casting long, craggy shadows. Everyone was awestruck and planning their riches after upcoming social media posts.
The door opened and green-vested police officers stepped onto the plane. They flooded down the aisle, gathered up the weakened woman, and carried her quickly out onto the jet bridge. They placed her into a wheelchair and locked both arms in place with handcuffs.
“Any idea what happened?” One officer asked, turning to the burly man who was still congratulating the flight attendant.
“She thinks she lost her daughter.” He responded.
“Is she on board?” The officer asked.
“We didn’t see anyone else. There's no one on the manifest.” As though expected, the officer shrugged and hurried off the plane. The man turned back down the aisle and went to gather his carryon bag. On his hip, a silver badge glistened in the lights of the passenger flashes. The words Air Marshall were embossed on one side, his badge number centered below.
“Nice job, douchebag.” The man with the phone flash muttered. “Way to let a woman do your job.”
He smiled, considered smacking the man a few times for good measure, but decided that his debut on social media was all but secured already. As he stooped to pull his duffel from beneath the seat in front of him, he glanced out the window and onto the tarmac. Below the wing of the plane, men and women in bright vests milled, the long conveyors ushering baggage down black treads and into waiting arms. Carts milled, twisting like serpents and were quickly laden with passenger treasures.
In the darkness he could see something strange. Something angular. The hard lines of the narrowing form breached the overhead lights, a momentary glare reflecting off buckles that lined the bleached wood. It was distinctly a coffin, but small, undersized. Like that of a child. The small package rode stoically down the belt, two strong crewmembers supporting both sides. It reached the bottom and was loaded onto a tram for transport to the terminal.
As the tug pulled away from the conveyor, the coffin seemed to glow amidst the other baggage, its simple shape stark in contrast to the bulbous forms. Alongside the slowly moving tug, he thought he saw…someone walking. He squinted and then plastered his face to the aircraft window. In the distance, he saw her: A small, tow-headed girl in a light pink dress. She turned, smiled up at him, and then joined the procession into the underbelly of the airport.
He stood quickly, hurrying down the aisles, his eyes focused on the girl who seemed to dance and skip as she followed along behind the tram.
“Wait.” He called out, his voice pallid, breathy.
“Sir?” The flight attendant was still standing guard at the front of the plane, her watchful eye noting his quick approach.
“Wait, I see her.” He shouted. “I see the girl.”
“What?” The woman asked, turning and staring out the window. She squinted into the darkness, noted the routine forms churning along the tarmac, and spun back to the breathless Air Marshall.
“She’s right there.” He pointed, his voice creeping towards hysteria.
“Sir, maybe you should sit down.” She cautioned, her hands outstretched as though hypnotizing him into submission.
“She’s under the plane, dammit. I can see her.”
In the distance he heard a high-pitched wail, the sobbing cries of a desperate mother. In the distance, the light, airy song of a young girl reverberated along the jetway. He caught one last glimpse as she danced and skipped into oblivion.