This story is by Perrin Pring and was part of our 2019 Summer Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Sean glanced at his phone and then at the seat number – 27 B. He had a middle seat. He stuffed his backpack into the overhead bin and plopped down. No one was in his row yet. He hoped that no one came, or better yet, that two green eyed, taut legged babes sat on either side of him. He pulled his phone from his pocket and stuffed one of the ear buds into his ear, his eyes on the incoming passengers.
Rachel moved down the aisle, doing her best not to let her bulk hit anyone. She’d gained over sixty pounds in the last three months. Her body, which she had never really liked, had become something all together alien. When she was younger, she’d thought of her physical self as a separate entity than her conscious self. Then, as her relationship worsened, and she ate and ate and ate to try to keep sane, she’d come to a realization. She didn’t know who any part of herself was – physical or emotional.
Bill stepped onto the plane and peered down the slow moving line of people. He checked his paper ticket. 27 A – a window seat. He wondered at that. For all the times he’d traveled he’d always booked an aisle seat so he could make his connections faster. Maximizing his time had been a primary motivation in his life. Now, he boarded a plane with no work to do and no crushing lack of hours in the day. Would he really stare out of the window at the passing clouds for the next several hours?
Rachel neared her row. She’d paid extra for an aisle. Her heart sank as she saw the twenty something, shaggy haired boy in the seat next to her. She watched his eyes skip over her as he labeled her and then dismissed her. She knew at some point some part of her would touch him, and she would feel ashamed. Shame was such an overwhelming emotion in her life now. It occurred to her that shame hadn’t always defined her. Then that wisp of her former self vanished, and her overwhelming self-consciousness returned. She attempted to sit down without looking at the man next to her.
Sean felt his shoulders fall as he realized the whale was sitting next to him. He stared at the woman as she awkwardly shoved her frumpy purse under the seat. How old she was he had no clue, but she was so fat. His disgust at her was palpable. How could she be so lazy that she’d turned into such a slug? What was wrong with people?
Bill saw the two other occupants of his row were already seated. He smiled and pointed at his seat. The woman in the aisle nodded meekly and stood. She reminded him of his sister. His poor sister had gotten married too young, had too many kids too quickly, and had never really found her footing as an adult before she was saddled with the responsibilities of an entire family. He’d always thought his sister, Maddy, was simple. After all, she hadn’t ever pursued anything for herself. Once she married, her life belonged to everyone but her, yet now with both Maddy and Bill in their late fifties, he wondered. She had an entire family of her own, even grandkids. He’d just retired, and while he had boatloads of assets, he didn’t have anyone in his life outside of Maddy – not even a girlfriend. The road ahead was scary, uncharted, and dare he say, lonely. For years he’d thought of his sister as a dolt for throwing away her potential for mere biological reproduction, yet… Had he been wrong?
Sean let the man into his seat. He was tall, old, lean, and wearing expensive casual clothes. Sean could see the man had money and that he took care of himself. Sean liked this. He sat back down and opened his text messages. Sean had just graduated college, and he was on his way to Yosemite to do a weeklong backpacking trip with his former roommates. They’d been training for this for the last four months. Sean looked to his left. The fat woman would have died on the trip they’d planned. Sean felt alive, truly alive. He could feel his muscles tense and release, like he was a finely tuned racecar, just waiting for the wave of the flag.
Which, Bill would have said, is how men of Sean’s age are programed to feel – young, strong, and full of hormones and ego. It would never have occurred to Sean that in a mere three days, two days after he and his friends left the trailhead, he would stumble and fall, tumbling down an incline of choppy granite that would shatter his femur. He wouldn’t die from the injury, although he would come close to bleeding out. Before he did though, an older woman with a 911 equipped GPS would walk by and make the call that would save his life. A helicopter would come with a young, taut legged, green eyed rescuer. She would dangle with him below the helicopter while they flew him to safety, her hand on his arm as he faded in an out of consciousness. The chest stomping beat of the rotors would mix with the pain drugs, and he would realize, despite the circumstances – I am not invincible.
And while Sean would be fighting for his life in the high wilds of the Sierra, Rachel would be in an attorney’s office in Fresno. Instead of believing what she’d believed for the last ten years – that her husband’s vicious moods weren’t his fault but hers. That all she needed to do was love him better – to make the right food at the right time, to have the thermostat at the right temperature, to stock the right beer in the fridge, etc., etc. – Rachel would be signing her divorce papers. Then, once she was done, she wouldn’t drive to the home they’d shared – a cute, seemingly perfect house in a suburban neighborhood – she would drive to a studio apartment on the opposite edge of town. She would get to her new home and remember the love in her mother’s aging face. She would call her mom, the woman who had let her come back to her childhood home for the last month while she bolstered the necessary forces to make the decision that would give her her life back. She’d tell her mom she’d done it, and then she would change into her new running shoes and go outside and walk. She would walk until she one day she started to run. She’d run every day until she found herself running across a marathon finish line. One marathon would turn into two, and soon she would travel the world, running marathons in as many countries as she could. One afternoon, as she sat on a plane, coming back from a sundrenched island race, she would briefly remember that flight back from her mother’s house all those years ago. In that moment, she’d realize – the feeling of shame had become foreign to her.
And while Rachel walked away her demons, Bill would be at a conference in San Francisco learning the basics of the cultivation of exotic plants in greenhouses. Bill had done his research prior to retiring, and he knew he needed a hobby if he was going to die happily in his sleep. He’d picked greenhouse gardening because it allowed him to escape into another world without leaving the only home he had ever known – Evanston, Illinois – which was where his sister was, and at his age he couldn’t afford to lose her. What Bill couldn’t have foreseen was meeting a devilishly funny retiree by the name of Harold who lived only 30 minutes from Bill’s Evanston home. The two of them would fall in love, get married, and on a cold winter night, decades away, Bill would fall asleep never to wake up, and Harold would follow Bill into death a mere month and a half later.
Rachel, Sean, and Bill buckled their seatbelts. Sean turned up his music to drown out the flight attendant, Rachel attempted to fold her girth back in on itself, and Bill stared at the ear muffed airport workers on the tarmac. All of them wondered over their futures. All of them thought they knew where they were going. Yet despite all being on the same plane to the same airport, none of them were headed anywhere they could have ever imagined.