by Shannon Bowring
JetBlue Flight 307
Departing PWM 3:00 PM
Arriving JFK 4:29 PM
Six hours and counting. Six hours until she touched down in another world, another life. Six hours until the story that had been hers could be erased, a new one written in its place.
“Miss, I have to ask you to place your carry-on in the overhead compartment. Would you like any help?”
Claire watched as the flight attendant pushed her pink bag into the overhead. She took silent inventory of all she’d brought along with her. Nestled in the pockets of her winter jacket were her cell phone, her wallet, and her passport. Tucked into the dark confines of the pink bag, an assortment of other necessary things: three changes of clothes, light layers; her lacy black bra; toothbrush; a paperback romance; one box of condoms (“I’ll pick some up,” Daryl had told her, but Claire knew better than to trust that particular promise); and, securely zipped into the tiny, inner pocket of the bag, the photograph she carried with her wherever she went.
“Thank you for flying JetBlue,” the flight attendant said over the loudspeaker. “We’re happy to have you on board with us.”
Claire almost believed him.
She watched as the ground disappeared beneath her, a smooth takeoff. As a child, she’d thought it some kind of miracle that such giant steel birds could remain in the sky. But now, just past her twenty-fifth birthday, Claire thought flight was less a miracle and more a temptation of fate.
Here I am where I don’t belong, the plane may as well have been saying to some faceless God. Here I am in your territory. Tell me, old man, what are you going to do about it? It was rare, Claire knew, for that God to strike out in anger. But rare was not never. Rare was enough to remind you that if He so desired, God could reach out one long finger and flick your jet from the clouds like a stray piece of ash.
Claire imagined the photograph tucked away in her bag. She didn’t need to hold it in her hands to see the subject the camera had captured. If she closed her eyes, she could envision it perfectly. The way the late summer sun dripped in buttery pools on the grass. The faded smile upon his face. And the lake behind him, a dark blue that matched his laughing eyes.
She called over the flight attendant and asked for seltzer water with a splash of something stronger. “Nerves,” she said.
“First time flying?”
“Practically a virgin.”
Claire accepted her drink, stirred the tiny red straw through the hopeful, rising bubbles. “Well, now,” she mused, “I wouldn’t say that.”
Far below, New England was covered in a thick blanket of snow. In the untouched places, it stood out as a pure, blinding white. In the towns, on the sidewalks, it was crusted over, turning brown, hiding forgotten trash that would be revealed in mud season.
Claire had never lived anywhere else. Until last year, the farthest away she’d ever been was a class trip to Boston when she was in the eighth grade. But then she’d gotten the phone call; bad news from the South that reached across the eastern seaboard to wrap its greedy hands around her throat. And the flight there, to say goodbye to someone who would never again say it back.
She had sat beside her mother in paralyzed silence, both of them terrified the plane would tumble from the sky. Her father sat in the row behind them, chatting with a stranger all the way to Charlotte.
Back on solid ground, it had been different. Her father had driven the rental car, thin-lipped, saying nothing, as Claire and her mother talked on and on, pointing out the southern oaks, the abundance of fat, feral cats skulking from lawn to lawn, the old black men loitering outside convenience stores. “You don’t see that in northern Maine,” her mother mused. They said every thought that popped into their minds; anything to drown out the unspoken truth of why they were there.
Claire didn’t like to think about that day, nor the ones that followed. Those days were better left back in the southern heat, in that sleepy town where everyone seemed to live contentedly on the brink of death. She would never understand why her brother had chosen to move there, of all places. It wasn’t just the heat she hadn’t been able to tolerate; it was the constant whine of cicadas — that tuneless hum of nothingness. The inescapable sun, shining so brightly when all she wanted was a dark, silent room. And the unfamiliar house filled with strangers who suffocated her in hugs of perfumed, black clothing. They claimed to have known Brennan, to have welcomed him into their homes.
“So young,” they’d said. “Such a handsome, kind young thing. A real tragedy. Here, honey, have another slice of ham.”
In the year since, Claire had tried to make sense of what had happened. She ignored the pleas of her mother and read the autopsy report until she’d memorized it. Male, Caucasian, 27 years old. 5’10,” 162 pounds. Brown hair, blue eyes, birthmark under left clavicle. Cause of death: single gunshot wound to right temple, self-inflicted.
What had put him there, with that gun in his hand; what force had compelled him to pull the trigger? For Claire, that question was as useless as trying to understand the mechanics of flight. If there was an answer, it was so much bigger than she was, just one more thing she was destined to never understand.
Claire nodded up at the flight attendant, feeling a wave of gratitude for his thoughtfulness. “Thank you for flying with us today,” she mumbled, aware that she was well on her way to becoming tipsy.
“That will be $4.25,” the attendant replied.
Where r u?
JFK, Claire typed back. 2 hour layover. Will text before boarding next flight.
Less than thirty seconds later, Daryl’s reply: Can’t wait 2 finally see u in person. Still can’t believe u actually did it! Safe travels sexy.
No comma, Claire noted, but she liked the sound of the words all rolled into one breath. Safe travels sexy. There was some kind of poetry in there, she just knew it.
Airports were places like no other, Claire thought. She sat on a stiff lounge chair and watched the people streaming by. Men, women, children; all different colors, heights, languages. It was a blur of humanity; a ceaseless scurry of movement. Claire wondered where they were all going — to or from, pleasure or business, alone or with someone else.
Coming or going, Claire, thought, it was all the same. Everyone looking for the next place, ready to leave the old things behind.
She knew she should call her parents, tell them where’d she’d gone when she’d left the house so abruptly this morning. Surely by now her boss at the clinic (where she worked as a medical secretary) would have called them and asked why she hadn’t shown up. Her father would lecture her about responsibility, asking what girl in her right mind would book a one-way ticket to a place she’d never been before. And her mother would fret, asking if everything was okay, if Claire felt all right, as though the sudden need to leave one’s life was the symptom of some nameable, curable disease.
“I just had to go,” Claire would try to tell them. But they wouldn’t be able to comprehend her motivations, just as they hadn’t when Brennan had made the announcement that he was moving to a town in South Carolina whose name they’d never heard before.
“I need to be somewhere that isn’t here,” he had said, and he was in the car one week later, headed for his new life without them.
Claire had been in stasis since Brennan died. She’d moved back in with her parents after the funeral, supposedly to help them. But they all knew it was because she couldn’t handle being a well-functioning adult, paying her own bills, renting her own place. For a while, it had been a relief to step away from the realities of life. But over the months, Claire had finally begun to understand Brennan’s need to leave. Sometimes it was just too much — the hopelessness of staying in one place. The misery of such inertia crept up on you — absent one moment, crushing you with its weight the next. Time to go, a voice screamed inside your head, and if you wanted to live, really live, you had no choice but to listen. Take only what you need, the voice insisted, and you listened to that, too, desiring to be gone as quickly as possible. Because by then, every moment was eternity, a vast distance that kept you from the next destination, wherever that might be.
Sometimes that voice needed help from another, stronger one. Like a handsome, six-foot-tall man from Nevada with black hair and green eyes, whom you’d met online. (Of course it was hard to tell if he was telling the truth about his height, when all Claire could see of him over the webcam were bits and pieces, never the entire sum of his parts.) His name was Daryl, who confessed in a conversation full of breathless laughter that he collected fortunes and kept them in a glass bowl in his kitchen. Daryl, who made you feel okay about pulling your bra strap down in front of the camera to reveal the pale curve of your shoulder. Daryl, who told you the story of how his own brother had died, a long time ago, of cancer. How it wrecked him. How his brother’s death had plunged him into the cold, swift current of life. How he had traveled to far-flung places, like India and Peru, carrying ashes, scattering his brother off mountaintops and into foreign rivers.
“You learn to bring him with you,” Daryl told her. “Everywhere you go.”
“But it’s such a heavy burden.”
“Only until you get used to the weight.”
When he suggested she meet him in Las Vegas, Claire had meant to say no. But the voice that spoke was not hers; it was that of the restless spirit within her, ready to move onto and into the next thing.
Such a small word, containing infinite possibilities.
JetBlue Flight 611
Departing JFK 6:20 PM
Arriving LAS 9:19 PM
He promised her they would drink champagne and throw away their money on clanging slot machines. “All you can eat buffets,” he had said, “all night long.” And Claire had imagined him on the other side of the computer screen, touching himself as he said this, wondering how she would taste when he finally got her alone in the hotel room.
It wasn’t the first time she would hook up with a guy she’d met online, and Claire guessed it wouldn’t be the last. Such ease of movement, in those chat rooms, the freedom to come and go as she pleased, to be whomever she wanted, for as long as she wanted.
Her conversations with Daryl were flirty, but not without substance. They discussed their jobs, families, childhoods. She complained about collecting copays from angry patients at the clinic; he bitched about the lucrative, but thankless hours he put in as a supervisor for a major mailing company. She told him about her fear of small, dark spaces. He admitted he still kept a nightlight in his bathroom, despite being nearly forty years old. The age difference didn’t bother Claire. She had no illusions. He was a means to an end. He was the solution she’d been craving ever since she’d allowed strangers to pat her hand as she stared at the ebony urn that contained the remains of her brother.
The second plane was a mirror image of the first. Claire sat on the opposite side this time. “Are you comfortable being located in front of the emergency exit?” the flight attendant asked. She lied and said she was.
Claire reached inside the dark recesses of the bag, her hand finding the zippered compartment where her brother now lived in pixelated memory. She removed the photograph and allowed the attendant to lift the bag into the overhead compartment.
She ignored the safety instructions, focusing instead on the image in her hands. She’d taken this picture a month before her brother had left. One last summer day at the lake, a vestige of their family traditions. He’d been in a laughing mood, teasing her, offering to help their father grill the hamburgers. All of them oblivious to the fact that within a year, he would be gone.
The third cup of something stronger than seltzer water brought a memory to mind, one she usually tried to forget — her last conversation with Brennan, three nights before the end.
“I thought it would be different here,” he told her. “But it’s just more of the same.”
“At least it’s sunny there,” she’d said.
“But it doesn’t make anything brighter.”
Later, after the funeral, they learned that he’d been seeing a psychiatrist. They found a bottle of antidepressants, untouched, in his kitchen cabinet. He’d never been one for medication, Claire recalled. She and her parents collected his belongings from his apartment. His guitar. His record collection, an eclectic mix ranging from Dylan to the Dead Kennedys to Digable Planets. The tattered red sweatshirt he’d worn since he was a sophomore in high school. There were a number of rafters at the appropriate height. A full box of heavy-duty trash bags in the pantry. His razor stood at attention on the bathroom sink.
Single gunshot wound to right temple, self-inflicted.
There were worse ways to kill yourself, Claire decided.
Somewhere over Kansas, she fell asleep. She met her brother in her dream, and the two of them swam together in the blue lake of their childhood until their shoulders ached with delicious agony. The sun shone in diamond-glimmers. In the distance, sitting upon the shore, she could see their parents, arguing.
“What do you think they’re worked up about this time?” she asked.
He smiled, the water trembling upon his lips. “Mom’s saying she’s hot,” Brennan said. “And Dad’s telling her to jump in the water. She’s telling him she will if he will. But neither of them really want to, see?”
Claire saw. The certain misery of dry land was better than the indefinite depths of the cool, dark water.
“Let’s swim farther out,” she said, but when she looked back, her brother was gone. She called his name, but no reply came. Below the surface, there was a tug on her ankle, enough to send a shiver of fear down her spine.
She said his name again, more frantic this time, and suddenly he reappeared in front of her, laughing. “I’m not really here, you know,” Brennan told her. “But then again, I guess I am. Thank you for flying with us today.”
Another tug on her ankle jolted Claire out of her slumber. The blurry face of the flight attendant swam into focus. “Sorry, miss. But we’re beginning our final descent. I’m going to need you to put on your seatbelt.”
Claire did as she was told, the dream already beginning to fade. She thought of her parents, waiting by the phone at home, fearing the worst. She would call them as soon as she landed, tell them she was okay. “Just needed to blow off steam,” she would say, making up some story about a spontaneous trip with her girlfriends. She and Daryl hadn’t set a timeline, and she wasn’t sure whether she was simply a distraction for him or something more, a way to feel a little less alone. But she hoped that a few days together might startle her back into the land of the living. That maybe her time with him would prompt her into making some kind of decision that would set her life back in motion.
She leaned forward and stared out the tiny window, watching, mesmerized, as the bright lights on the ground began to appear out of the clouds. This was the opposite of heaven — seeing stars below you, glittering up with their secrets and promises. Claire found the brightest light and whispered her brother’s name, a sort of wish.
And finally, the landing — smooth, as though she’d never been tethered to the sky at all.
Shannon L. Bowring is 28 years old and lives in Maine. She holds a B.A. in English/Creative Writing from the University of Maine. Her work has appeared or is scheduled to appear in Crack the Spine Literary Magazine, JMWW, The Maine Review, the Hawaii Pacific Review, Sixfold, and the Joy of the Pen online journal. Her short story “Leave Her Wild,” published by JMWW, was nominated in November 2017 for a Pushcart Prize.
Featured image courtesy of ravas51.