Strangers on a Plane

Inspired by Weekly Writing Challenge: Dialogue

 

Strangers on a Plane

 

“Ma’am, you need to step to the side, please.”

“What?”

“Come to the side so the walkway is clear.”

“No.”

It wasn’t a loud noise, but it demanded attention. It was soft, and staccato, and possessed the command tone of a veteran drill sergeant in the face of impending doom.

I didn’t know how to react to that tone. Not really. This tiny woman, no more than five foot if that, white hair, green coat, slate skirt and heels that would make a model think twice, controlled my psyche without even looking at me. She was still staring fixedly ahead and decidedly *not* moving.

The line behind her was irritated and several had tried to move the queue around her, but there simply wasn’t room.

“Ma’am I really must insist.” I didn’t want to sound rude. I didn’t want to have to call security. I didn’t want this little old lady to have to miss her flight. I had to get everyone on the plane though. However the little lady didn’t move from her place in the open doorway, she simply shook her head, still staring intensely through the galley window and out at the sky? Possibly the tarmac? I couldn’t tell.

“May I help you find your seat then?”

“What?” She turned her head slightly as though just seeing me. And the corners of her lips curled slightly.

It wasn’t a smile.

It should have been a smile. Everything was a smile physically. The up turned lips, the slight crinkle of her already wrinkled eyes, the slight glimmer of teeth through lips that were barely parted. But it most definitely wasn’t a smile.

“Thank you.” She whispered, and shook her head again. She took a breath and continued to her seat. I looked to Kristy who was working the small flight with me today and shrugged. Still you get all sorts, one of the reasons I was attracted to the business.

I figured it was all over. That the strange little lady in the ridiculous shoes and the sharp green coat would remain looking through the window into the far distance as she had since she sat. She looked so tiny in the large business class seat, I wondered how she had held up the line in the first place, surely sh couldn’t block the gangway no matter how narrow it was. We were over halfway there when her attendant light came on.

Making my way down, doing a trash check and making eye-contact with anyone who was still awake, partly because it was my job, mostly because I was delaying. Her smile that wasn’t a smile was still trapped in my head. It had seemed so wrong, so distant, so foreign on her face, her face which was nothing but laugh lines. I could not imagine why the smile was so wrong there, but it was and it disturbed me.

“Everything alright ma’am?”

That odd, wrong, and oh so disturbing smile met me. “Pardon?”

“Is anything wrong?” I try not to raise my voice too much but wonder if she’s hard of hearing.

 “Everything’s wrong.” Her face crumpled, and she looked away – down at her blue lined hands, knuckles knotted with age, skin so fragile I worried as she clenched them closed that her perfectly manicured nails would simply rip through it.

“Ma’am?” I shuffle closer, there’s an empty seat beside her as she leans against the open window, the black night offered no solace to her though. I didn’t sit, simply got closer and leaned in slightly.

She turned to face me again, silent tears coated her face. How much had she cried in so few seconds, it worried me.

“I’m sorry.” She whispered, taking deep silent breaths, no one not looking at her face would be able to tell she was falling apart. “I just wanted a glass of water. May I have a glass of water please?”

I nodded. “Yes of course ma’am.” I nodded, and like a coward turned tail and ran. Well walked very briskly to the galley. I poured two glasses of water and downed one myself. Then took a few extra napkins to serve as her coaster because I had no idea what else I could offer the woman.

In the two minutes it took to collect her water and walk back her face was tidied and her tray table down a pill container set out.

Handing over the water I was treated to her creepy smile again. It was worse this time. I wanted to shiver. “Thank you.” Her ever polite tone was sincere though.

“Is there anything else ma’am?” The response is automatic. I wish I could retrieve it from the air, make it unsaid, I hope she is almost deaf and won’t hear.”

She nods. “Yes thank you.” I nod. “No, wait.”

I resist the urge to ignore her and turn back.

“Yes ma’am?”

She doesn’t look at me with that smile, I’m very, very glad about that. She’s looking out her dark window, blinded to the outside by the reflections of the inside lights on the glass. “Will you sit with me?”

“Pardon?”

She turns her eyes to me, they seem too big and too small all at once, like someone had put the entire ocean inside of a marble and then surrounded it with mountains of soft sand.  “Please.”

I find myself sinking into the chair beside her. It’s against policy. I don’t want to be there, but the tone is so unlike her commanders tone from the door  and yet exactly the same. It’s the voice of the veteran, after the disaster, after he’d done all he could, saved all he could and was accepting what he had lost. And he had lost so very, very much.

“Are you alright ma’am?”

“Edna Marpleton.” She said, staring at her hands on the tray table. “Please call me Edna.”

I nod.

“I’m not alright.” She admits. It’s nothing short of a confession; it’s her bearing her soul. She’s told me something that’s sat inside her poisoning her for years and I’m the priest she’s chosen. I’m an atheist. I’m also completely silent.

“I’m really not.” She says again and her hands reach for the pill bottle.

“I don’t think I want to be anymore.” She shifts the bottle from hand to hand, the plastic echoing with the sound of many pills rattling the edges, the soft shush of her dry hands on the label almost inaudible.

“Ma’am?

She cocks her head slightly but is looking intently at the pills.

“I realized it’s been twenty years to the day today.” She nodded. “An important anniversary and I’d forgotten it, perhaps intentionally buried it. Twenty years of this.” She placed the bottle back on the tray table.

It was as though she had slammed it, fist raging it felt as though her whole hand wanted to punch through the offensively bland grey plastic. It’s amazing how gentle the motion was.

“With two pills a day,  healthy habits and a good diet I could have another twenty years too.” She said softly.

“That’s good, isn’t it?” I wish words would check before using my mouth.

She looked at me. Truly looked, it was as though she reached in through my eyes and examined my whole life and every thought in a mere moment.

“I’m not sure it is.” She admitted. “I don’t think it’s really worth it anymore.”

Suddenly I’m in too far. I’ve got no way out. I’m sitting in a chair I never should have let myself fall into speaking with a stranger I should only have to get drinks and possibly a blanket for and now I’m aware she’s using me as her sounding board. She’s chosen me as therapist while contemplating the end, and even considering taking the red eye to get there faster.

I scrambled for something to say.

“Twenty years of pills.” She said with a shrug. “Twenty years of, a ‘fulfilling and healthy life’ and ‘adversity  makes you stronger.’ I’m tired of being strong. Tired of adversity. Tired of pills.”

She picks them up and rolls them between her palms then pops the lit with an ease that gives credibility to her story. One orange pill roll out and she drops it on the plastic with a sharp click.

“I’m alone in the world. No family. No friends. No pets. I’ve lived in the same apartment for thirty years and never had another cohabitate.” Her eyes look at mine, fierce and angry. “Never.”

“I “ am panicking, have no clue what to say, want to run away. “I’m sorry”

I should have kept my mouth shut. She’s giving me that odd smile again.

“I’m not going to live another twenty years.” She says. She puts the pill back in the bottle and drains her water dry. “I don’t think I’m living past the end of the month.” She nods, almost as confirming something in her own head.

“Ma’am?” I’m genuinely freaking out. I cannot freak out. Freaking out, is a decidedly bad plan.

She tapped the bottles top drumming out ‘shave and a haircut.’ “Haven’t been taking them.” Her eyes were closed and she leaned against the head rest. “Haven’t had side effects in almost two weeks. No blurry vision, no ever looping dreams, no vertigo. It’s been nice.”

Kristy passes me and I throw her a semi-panicked look. She nods and continues minding the mostly sleeping plane. I wish she’d answered the call light, she’d be so much calmer right now. She’d know what to say. Or maybe she would be just as freaked out as I am. Yea, she’d be just like I am, but I’d be walking down the aisle towards the cockpit to inform the pilot there was ‘something’ happening, and not trapped next to a woman confessing she’d been deliberately trying to die for the last fortnight.

“I flew for the first time in twenty years two days ago. Went to my parents graves, vertigo kept me away for so long. And now, now I’m going to my husband.”

“Has he been gone long?” That’s the wrong question, I’m supposed to make her think nice things, how wonderful not dying would be! Not thinking about her dead husband!

“Bastard left me six months after being diagnosed, ran off with his mistress. I’m going to inform him of all the money he’s not getting when I die.” She laughed bitterly. “I’ve let him believe for years that I didn’t blame him, for this moment. I’m going to spit in his face for what he did. Let him think I read his letters and since he tried to hide hi mistress, never married her and remained the only one who ‘cared’ he was the only one alive, he thinks he’s getting my fund. HA” There was a gleam in her eye, almost manic. It was as if she were there staring down the man she felt betrayed by. I wondered if her ridiculous heels were going to maim the man, I found myself wondering if he didn’t deserve it.

“I have lawyers, so many lawyers hired just to keep him from touching a cent.” Her eyes were sad. “I suppose I’m bitter, and angry, petty even. But I loved him once and he,” She stuttered. “I deserve to get one thing I want. And I want him to feel as abandoned as I did.”

The silence stretched between us but I felt moving would break the moment. So the moment kept going.

“Will it matter?”  I didn’t mean to ask.

“What?” She asked.

“Your revenge, will it matter.”

“It will to me.”

“Not if you’re dead Edna. How could it possibly matter to you when you’re a corpse?”

The silence wasn’t a moment anymore. It was filled with her thinking. She leaned forward on the tray table and I took it as my queue to leave.

Kristy informed the pilot and a call was made to the airport. I’d have to fill out forms, incident reports and such. I hated that there was a procedure for this.

We landed and the plane emptied out. I was doing the final check and a single pill sat on a napkin in business class. I knew there was a note. I didn’t want to read the note. I didn’t want to be responsible for reading those words.

I did anyway.

“Maybe it doesn’t matter. – Edna”

The words run through my head over and over. As I’m filling in paperwork and nodding my goodbyes. It’s when I get home and lock myself in the bathroom that I see it all though.

There in the mirror, I see my face, perfectly blank perfectly presentable. Just another day of work. The words push through my tranquility like a train through the paper drawn tunnel in cartoons, ripping through me with a sudden and violent rush.

“Maybe it doesn’t matter. – Edna”

” – Edna” It strikes me as funny. She signed her note. As if it could be from anyone else. I almost smile.

Then I see it. Her smile, her smile on my face in the mirror. Her broken smile that wasn’t a smile.

It makes sense to me now. She couldn’t smile because it was a mask. It was a shell. It was agony that could never be proper in a world of over sanitized disease and non-acceptance of death. It was betrayal wrapped in the expected veneer of forgiveness that had never healed. It was everything that was wrong pretending to be all right. And she was too tired to pretend anymore. And here in my home, in my bathroom, struck by the morbid humor of her name on a suicide note, I didn’t have to pretend.

No more than that. I couldn’t pretend.

“Maybe it doesn’t matter. – Edna”

“But what if it does.” I whispered to the face in the mirror, the broken smile that reminded me of a stranger. “What if it does Edna Marpleton?”

It takes me two weeks to bring myself to search for Edna Marpleton’s obituary. It was the fourth of the month now and it nagged at me daily that I owed it to her to look. To admit she’d affected me. I knew it was more selfish though, I wanted to know, was morbidly fascinated with the fact. I tried to deny it, but it wasn’t easy. So late one night after flying in from Detroit I sat at my laptop and contemplated the search bar with her name typed in.

In the end I hit enter gently, as she had placed the pill bottle down with nary a sound. It struck me just as hard though.

Pages and pages and pages came up.

Flying constantly it’s fairly easy to ignore the news after all if it’s not 30,000 feet up and not at the radio tower it’s not really affecting me, but how I had missed this astounded me.

Edna was not dead.

Edna was also very actively not dying.

It seems an ungodly amount of money and an old name can get you a lot of things. And can get a lot of things done for you.

Research grants, untested methods, laws changed. Edna was fighting. Edna was also winning. Biomedical tech, holistic and the medically minded collaborating, stem cell bans over turned left and right, an entire medical school being funded and a hospital had already renamed itself after her. She was dragging the countries medical field into the future because she was tired.

Her interviews said it constantly. “I’m tired of the status quo. I’m tired thinking my next twenty years, will be a repeat of my last. I’m tired and I’m tired of living so it doesn’t matter that I’m not alive.”

I delved deeper. Reading everything loving the gossip pages about her ex and how horrible he’d been. I couldn’t help grinning. She was getting her revenge. Destroying him without touching him. The people despised him. His mistress, never married, left in disgust. And he was trying so very hard to ingratiate himself with Edna, but no one was buying it. He tried to turn it around and make it seem as though he had been pushed around. Edna turned her sad eyes to the camera and didn’t bat an eyelid. “I loved him with my whole self, and he crushed me when I was most broken.”

I wanted to cheer for her. I like many found it very easy to hate the man who hurt the impeccably dressed older woman who was tired of remaining quiet with her old money and was changing the world with it instead.

Edna continued to splash across the front pages over the years.

She even flew on one of my flights again. We didn’t talk but she did smile. It was full, and bright, and her eyes sparkled. She shook my hand as she got off the plane and my fellow attendants were in awe. Everyone knew Edna Marpleton and I had shaken her hand. I didn’t tell them about our last flight together, or that I still had the napkin tucked inside the back flap of my favorite book.

She didn’t make it another twenty years, as the doctors had suggested. But a mere nine.

I was woken by a phone call around two in the afternoon. I had disconnected the hotel phone but my cell was cheerfully disturbing my well-deserved rest. I had a late flight and had only just gotten to sleep after an overseas nightmare of study abroad students. I fumbled and answered.

“What is it?”

Not very politely it seemed.

“Edna Marpleton has died.”

What? Who was this? Who called with such news?

“Oh.” Not very eloquent am I? “And?”

“As one of her beneficiaries I am calling to inform you as per her last requests.” The man said officially. It was odd how efficient he was and yet he still managed to convey sympathy.

“I think you’ve got the wrong number.” I manage, sitting up slowly. No way I was going to sleep after this.

There was a knock on the door.

“I do not believe so.”

“I really” The knock was louder. “Hang on a moment.” I scrambled for my shirt and hurried to the door.

A man in a suit with a briefcase stood there a phone to his ear.

“As I stated, I do not believe I am mistaken.” He hung up and I heard my phone disconnect.

“Are you here to kill me?”

I’m still sleep addled I’m certain.

“I assure you Mr. Quinn I do not wish you deceased, it makes my job much more difficult.” He said.

I took a step back and he took it as an invitation to come in.

“Now I assume you know nothing of Ms. Mapleton’s plans?”

“How’d she, I mean was it”

“She passed this morning on her way to a meeting, a rather tragic traffic accident.” The man said gently. “She was DOA and there was nothing that could have been done.”

“Oh.” I found myself glad it hadn’t been her illness. She had changed the medical field so much, it would have been worse had they failed her, if they had let everything drag until she stopped caring again. I found this so much more acceptable.

“Now ..”

I didn’t really pay that much attention. Apparently she credited me with saving her life. All I did was let my mouth run because I was panicking too much to think, but she thought that saved her. So she had decided to keep tabs on me. For nine years she’d been watching. And that wasn’t creepy … except a lot.

She’d set up a fund in my name to train and employ emergency counselors. It was a project already underway  something already nationwide under an umbrella of smaller missions. The councilors would have schooling paid by grants in my name, but the actual emergency centers were under some other name. It didn’t really sink in. So much paperwork.

My mind checked out after he took my phone and told work I had a family emergency and would call back in a couple days. I think he may have quite for me, or gotten me fired. I honestly wasn’t dealing with that. I was numbly signing papers and trying to contemplate how this was my life: sitting in my hotel room at two in the afternoon in my boxers and a dirty shirt with an immaculately dressed lawyer shoving paper after paper at me.

After signing away my life it seemed he explained there was an allowance granted to me by Ms. Mapleton’s wishes and I would likely be able to live quite comfortably one the probate went through.

I had no idea what that meant and he said he’d keep in touch as he gathered his documents and left.

I sat staring at that letter for several minutes when another knock had me eyeing the door warily. I wasn’t certain I could handle any more surprises. The knock came again.

“Room Service, Mr. Quinn.”

“I didn’t …” I stopped as the scent of steak invaded my nostrils.

“Your friend paid sir. Said you’d had a shock.” The woman’s face oozed sympathy and a little curiosity. No doubt she wanted to gossip.

“A friend’s just died.” I stutter, I didn’t tell her I was probably fabulously wealthy now, because I had no money to tip, and as much as she was cute I did not want sympathy sex from someone who might have to change the sheets. I had to go to a bar tonight.

She gasped some empty words but I was too focused on the steak to really care.

I was glad for a full stomach very shortly afterwards. And my eyes locked onto the letter.

I should be drunk for this.

What would she say?

I was a stranger on a plane to her. Old money, fabulously famous, all around humanitarian, winner of so many prizes it was generally thought if she sneezed it was for the betterment of mankind. And I barely said twenty words to her.

I emptied the mini-bar. If what the lawyers said was right I could afford it, and if it was all some hoax I deserved it so either way it was justified.

Finally enough liquid courage had me opening the letter. It’s dated almost eight months past, February.

“Mr Quinn

“You were right. It didn’t matter. If I was dead I never could have enjoyed my revenge. I cherished his downfall. But more importantly, I gained a purpose. Will it matter, you asked me, when I was a corpse.

You were right. All I had that would matter was money. Old money with no one to hand it down to. I wanted more. I wanted it to mean something and I’d wasted twenty years doing nothing. I had them run the numbers last year, they’ll be in some of the papers Mr. Adingsworth brought by I’m certain, if not demand them, don’t ask, demand. Only way to get anything done. The numbers say how many people we’ve saved. You and I.

I with my wealth and you by convincing me to live.

We’ve done well so far. And it increases every day. They’ll include an updated copy of the report every year. Please read it since as a corpse I will not be able.

Read that number and know that for those people it mattered. You saved them with three words.

Thank you Mr. Quinn

– Edna”

The numbers are attached the report from last November, they are well into the hundreds of thousand’s and a notation that the estimate is conservative.

“Thank you Mr. Quinn

– Edna”

She thanked me.

She thanked me for panicking and sitting in a chair.

“– Edna” I smile. I think it might look just a little broken, a little like she did when she stopped in the gangway. Because who else could it be. How odd that she signed it just the same as her suicide note. How strange, and how wonderfully consistent.

The letter lives in the front flap of my favorite book. Her note the end her letter the start … I’m sure it’s symbolic but I couldn’t bear to move the note and I couldn’t bear for the two to touch. They were such different Edna’s even though they were so incredibly the same, and how odd I feel knowing the differences in her as though we were life-long friends though we always were and would never be anything other than strangers on a plane.

 

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Daily Prompt – The Wind Wishes

 

The Wind Wishes

 

It’s cruel how the wind teases us.

How she gently buffets our sails

How she brushes worry from our faces.

How she tickles us with coolness in a wicked heat.

It’s unforgivable how soft and sweetly she sounds

She brushes the most delicate flowers

Lifts their heads without bruising

She sings soft shushing lullabies

To the oldest redwood

To the youngest child

She embraces us all blindly

And she makes us think she cares

She lies

She lies and her lies are crushing

In mere moments she could go from singing to screaming

Raging against those she seemed to cherish

Shredding tender leaves

Flinging infants from their nests to shatter

In her fit of pique she torments the world

She hurls herself to the ground

She spins and rips an the earth

Jealous of its home?

Angry at its contentment?

I do not know

She gouges at it and then claws at herself

Tearing through her own need to move

She throws herself uncaringly at the ground

And destroys anything in her path

Twirling in a mad cacophony

A wail that deafens

A sob that rips

A gasp of dismay that makes breathing a fantasy

And a silence follows

A moment of absolute endlessness

Has the fit passed?

For the moment, perhaps

The destruction is clear

A tiny desperate breath puffs over it

An apology?

A warning?

A child reaching out.

The shattered remains of a favored toy.

A moment of utter tragedy.

Not only is it done, it cannot be undone

There is no way back

No forgiveness and no true blame.

It is what it is.

And it’s not fair.

The lives are changed,

Just as the wind is ever changing.

A gentle breeze is cruelty

Because it lies.

The wind is not gentle.

The wind only wishes she were.

Wishes aren’t granted.

Wishes are folly.

Wishes are cruel.

And the wind wishes it weren’t so.

Inspired by today’s Daily Prompt.

Daily Prompt: No Fair