A work of fiction.
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Normally, I hate flying. But as my fellow grad students and I herd toward the terminal, I glimpse Emery’s ticket over her shoulder: 13A. I am 13C. Excitement lumps in my throat. It is too good to be true.
I offer to help with her carry-on, but she declines pleasantly and hefts it into the overhead herself, staggering under its weight before sliding next to the window. I am assigned the aisle, and the empty between us is my roulette wheel. My fingers twitch on my knee as travelers file past. I cannot wedge my legs into the allotted space, and every other person kicks them. Steel-toed cowboy boots, really?
My shins are going to be purple, but I don’t care. None of the passersby take 13B. When the stewardess announces the closing doors, I let out a long breath, my hands jittering as I store my briefcase. Emery gives me a friendly grin, but my return smile is as weak as the flat-world theory.
What a dolt.
This is the chance I’ve been waiting for.
Our university’s dean of History had hand-selected four of us to attend the Association of Ancient Historians annual conference, where we would lecture on our theses. On the flight to San Francisco, I got stuck next to Brad. He isn’t dreadful, but he monologues and doesn’t pick up on social cues. Worst of all, he isn’t Emery.
Once in San Fran, I thought there would be endless opportunities to have a private conversation with Emery, but our schedule was wall-to-wall. We ran from lectures to meetings, demonstrations to critique groups, squeezing in one mad-dashed sightseeing tour. I could barely keep up with the influx of facts, contacts, and feedback, let alone strategize a tête-a-tête.
The two of us almost shared a continental breakfast one morning. I would have preferred something classier than stale bagels at a wobbly plastic table, but even that was spoiled when Sharon, our fourth colleague, inserted herself at our table. She was a middle-aged prig with a voice like a pencil sharpener and griped the whole meal about the weak coffee, the insidious nature of technology, and her slob of a husband. I had ground my teeth and wished to slip her a powerful laxative. Ironically, it probably would have done her more benefit than harm.
The stewardess begins her safety spiel, and Emery’s boots are already off, her legs folded underneath her like origami. I hide my grin and rub my aching knees. Our plane taxis across the bumpy asphalt, picks up speed, and then the metal beast surges off the ground. I lean over to watch the bay fall away. Light turns the water into glass and the buildings into toys until the earth diminishes, and we enter a mass of clouds.
Emery’s hair falls forward, and the setting sun gleams through like rose gold. She turns to me, her eyes a-glitter with childlike excitement. “When I fly, I always think of the song ‘Castle on a Cloud,’ you know, from Les Mis?” She faces the window. “That’s just what it’s like up here: a billowing white kingdom.”
My insides squeeze. Before her, I hadn’t known a person could radiate so much curiosity and zest. Even when she lectures, her words are melody; they ebb and flow with crescendos, dissonance, and fortissimos that resolve in a climax worthy of applause. She makes ancient Rome rise and fall before your eyes in all its grandeur and corruption. Her concepts are profound and challenging, yet the simplest person can follow her reasoning.
The first time I heard her speak was on the opening day of our graduate program. She picked a fight with the professor about whether Julius Cesar said “Alea iacta est” or “Anerriphtho kybo” at the Rubicon. Her argument was so compelling most students rallied to her side. The professor was irked, and I was enamored.
After that, we collaborated on projects and developed the same friend group. Our hodgepodge of book-nerds gather for barbeques, study groups, strategy board games, weekend hikes, and to celebrate academic achievements. We are our own kind of family, and I am neck-deep in the friend zone.
Every other month, I resolve to tell her, but fear of rejection and losing our friendship always stop me. They can’t anymore; we graduate next month. It is now or never. And here we are, the perfect scenario: intimate, uncontrived, and unrushed. My thoughts are scrambled eggs. I’ve planned the words for ages, but I must have left them on the tarmac. Whatever I do say has to be perfect. I have to be perfect.
I loosen my tie, suddenly claustrophobic. The seatbelt light bings off, and Emery is already out of hers. The pilot’s fuzzy voice comes over the speaker, asking passengers to keep their belts on while seated. I don’t say anything; her nonchalance is exhilarating. I wipe my palms on my pant legs and clear my throat so many times she probably thinks I’m ill. Suddenly, her chocolate brown eyes arrest mine, and I startle like a possum.
“Do you mind if I lay down?” Emery gestures to the seat between us and whispers, “Sharon snores.”
Cutbacks in the History department meant we had to share hotel rooms.
“Of course.” I shift the seat belt out of the way, and she curls up like a cat in her oversized sweater.
It would break all my bones to fold like that, but she’s not exactly comfortable, either. She burrows her nose into her arms, fidgets, then rolls to face the seatback. A stray length of honey-colored hair flips onto my lap, so fair next to my dark skin.
I imagine sweeping wisps away from her face and tucking them behind her ear. My audacity startles me. I swallow the thought and gingerly place the loose strand beside the rest, ripping in silk rivers along her back and shoulder. She shifts gently with slow, rhythmic breaths, and I force myself to look away.
We will have time to talk when she wakes. And if not, there is always tomorrow.
I tilt my chair back and try to doze. The weekend floats through my semi-conscious: ‘The Coliseum’s death toll is estimated at over 500,000 souls…’ ‘The fall of Rome was largely due to internal instability…’ ‘Your thesis was good, but you lacked conviction…’ On the tour bus, Emery had tapped my shoulder and pointed out the Palace of Fine Arts, so I wouldn’t miss it. She had skipped down the Golden Gate Bridge in the rain.
A jostle wakes me. I check on Emery, but the movement hasn’t bothered her sleep. The seatbelt light bongs on, and the captain’s voice says something about a storm. They are adjusting altitude for our comfort. In the meantime, would we please remain seated with our belts on.
I consider waking Emery, but she looks so peaceful, her pale lashes fanned against her cheeks. Flight attendants whisk past, and someone behind me inquires after his ginger ale.
The attendant’s response is blasé: “The captain asked us to take a seat. We will resume our complimentary services momentarily.”
I sigh and turn. My fingers are inches away from her shoulder when the plane bucks violently. She topples to the floor. I reach for her, but my seatbelt stops me. For half of a horrible second, her frightened puppy eyes meet mine before the aircraft plunges into a gut-rending dive, and the lights cut out.
Something crashes above my head. It’s Emery, slamming into the plastic compartment.
My panic tastes like blood. Adrenaline floods my brain like acid on a circuit board as gravity spins out of control on a rollercoaster from hell. My seatbelt cuts into my waist. Emery. Where is Emery? I sweep the air blindly and catch a flailing arm as she smashes downward again.
Chaos consumes the plane.
Adults and children shriek, wail, and shout. A dog yips like a maniac. The speakers fritz and spark; lights flicker like a horror movie. Oxygen bags drop and swing. The stink of vomit, sweat, and terror engulf me. A thunderous roar grows outside the windows, drowning the madness within as the metal tube plummets through black oblivion.
I grip Emery’s forearm, but the rest of her thrashes midair. I scramble to catch and hold her down, but the plane pitches relentlessly. Luggage tumbles from the overheads. Noise and heat crush me. I yell her name into the tumult. And she shouts mine in return. Her voice is mere feet away, but the sound is almost lost.
I snatch Emery’s other arm, but before I get a firm grip, the plane hits another air pocket and wrenches her clean away. Crack.
I feel electrocuted. Numb. Then her body lands across my knee with a crunch.
Lights: on, off, on, off, on.
I wrap my arms around her, clutching her small body to my chest. The plane bumps, jutters, dips, careens. I tuck my head over hers and pray like I’m staring God in the face.
On and on it goes until no hope exists. I simply wait for the terminus.
Time and space slip. I lose track of everything but her.
How long it lasts, I don’t know, but the end does not come. Not for me. The jolting mellows slowly, and the roar outside gives way to human noise and stench. A steady light comes through the sliver of space between our faces. I do not want to lift my head. Everything throbs with pain and shock.
When I do pull away, I see blood trail from Emery’s nose and the corner of her sweet lips. Her eyes do not open, do not flutter.
Tears burn trenches down my cheeks. “No… no, no.”
I move my leg, and her ribs shift sickeningly. I choke.
My breath catches. “This can’t… you can’t, Emery… no…” Sobs suffocate words and reason, and I want to die.
All those years we could have spent together, all those times I could have told her, should have told her. They fade like vapor in the wind.
I stroke her hair in anguish and whisper, “…I love you.”