As the flight attendants did their usual safety orientation, demonstrating the use of the oxygen mask, and where to pull on the flotation devices under the seat cushions, John drew in his elbows, tried to bring his knees together, and muttered a curse against himself under his breath.
Why couldn’t you just pay the thirty bucks to upgrade to an aisle seat?
The flight had been cheaper than he’d expected. The hotel had been cheaper than he’d expected. There was no reason for him not to have just pressed the “upgrade” button when he checked in two hours before the flight. But he’d figured he was coming back home, and he had the whole day off to rest. He’d had a little bit to eat—something he’d eaten many times before—and just enough to drink so he’d be well-hydrated but wouldn’t have to use the bathroom on the plane. He could handle six hours of sitting in a middle seat. And technically, it was true.
And he was sitting next to two small-ish people. A young woman in the window seat, who’d already lowered the shade to block out the morning brightness, and a slim teenage boy. But even with his hands folded in his lap and his shoulders curled forward, John could see that his arms encroached on his seatmates’ spaces.
The teenage boy seemed to be sick. He’d kept his head down when he got up to let John and then the young woman get in their seats, and he was sniffling and clearing his throat every few minutes. He had a huge thermos sticking from the side pocket of his backpack, a thermos that had the logo of the artisan tea place in the terminal’s food court. John hoped he wouldn’t get sick. But he also realized that it was a good thing that the boy had the aisle seat. In case he needed to go throw up in the restroom or something.
John glanced around at his fellow passengers—what little he could see of them—and watched others shift and adjust, and he shook his head. A spasm wracked his right knee, popping it outward. He turned his head, ready to apologize to the sick fourteen year-old, but the kid already had his wireless earbuds on, and his head tilted to the left on one of those neck donut things.
John sighed and wished he had more space in his row.
As the plane began its taxi down the runway, John carefully plugged in his own earbuds and cued up his chosen audiobook. He sighed again when the woman sitting in the window seat pulled out her laptop and cued up a movie. He could have done the same, of course he could. His laptop was in his backpack, which was under the seat. And he even had his tablet, if he thought his laptop was too big. But he preferred not to be interrupted after he started a movie. Waving off the flight attendants when the snack cart went by was as much a disruption as he could accept. So he would have only watched a move if he’d been in the window seat. So audiobook it was, interspersed with music if he needed a change-up. He had almost thirty hours left of his book. Entertainment was not the issue.
As expected, a little while after their snack break, during which John asked for cookies, but refused a drink, the woman in the window smiled and sweetly asked if she could get by to go to the restroom. John glanced over at the teen, who despite his earbuds and his cold or whatever he had, was alert enough to his surrounding to already be getting up.
Per airplane etiquette, John and the teen got back up out of their seats when the young woman returned, and they all settled back down. And the woman, who had every right to get up and use the restroom, smiled at and thanked John before she sat back down and pulled her blanket over herself again.
The poor kid next to John was nursing whatever hot liquid he had in his thermos (it smelled minty), and seemed to be going back to the restroom every hour.
John heard someone ask the flight attendant for a blanket. This was not some bargain flight, but they didn’t have any blankets in the seat backs. John didn’t fly much those days, but he’d sworn the last time he’d flown, they’d had blankets. Maybe it was the airline. The flight attendant explained that there were no blankets onboard. He heard his fellow passenger quietly proclaim that she hadn’t realized how cold it would get on the plane. Someone else from behind him shouted over that she had a blanket in her carry-on, and she would fetch it.
John shook his head again. Fellow passenger to the rescue. He’d recently heard a news story about a woman finding something gruesome in a seat back, wrapped in a blanket, a toe or something. He couldn’t remember. But maybe this airline had decided to prevent that kind of thing by not offering blankets. They had headphones for sale. But no blankets.
John was at a relatively boring part of his book when the young woman in the window seat asked to get by again. And again he and the teen boy moved out of the way and returned to their seats. He kept his seatbelt unfastened, expecting the woman to be back shortly. And he took the opportunity to spread his left arm out and search his phone for something more interesting to listen to for a while. He put on some music, something soothing but with some light percussion, so he could nod his head and maybe visualize.
A few tracks went by before John glanced over to the window seat and wondered where his seatmate was. Maybe she had more than one thing to take care of in the restroom. That wasn’t any of his business. But fifteen minutes still seemed like quite a while.
Maybe, he thought, as he pulled out an earbud and heard a few quiet conversations in progress around him, she was visiting a friend in a different row.
John’s left butt cheek was getting numb. He shifted to relieve some of the pressure on it. He closed his eyes and leaned his head back on the seat, and he listened to his music. But he left the one earbud out so he would hear the woman’s “excuse me,” when she finally returned.
Almost an hour went by since his seatmate had left. John glanced over and saw that her bag was still under her seat. And her own headphones—she’d pulled out the over-the-ear variety for her movie-watching—were still lying on her seat.
John now thought she definitely must have been visiting someone she knew. As he shifted again, and stretched out his left leg as much as possible to keep it from falling asleep, he pictured her walking right past them after using the restroom and right up to the first class section. He would have like to think she knew someone up there, and had found a much more pleasant place to lay her head than the hard bulkhead of the plane. He liked to think this, because it was a lot more pleasant a thought than thinking that something had happened to her. But if something had happened to her, he would have heard the flight attendants ask if there were any doctors onboard, and if they would identify themselves. Or he would have heard passengers reacting.
That had happened on his last flight. A few passengers in a row in front of him had pressed the call button furiously and then loudly called to the flight attendant on behalf of a man who needed some help. Fellow passengers to the rescue.
So if his seatmate had gotten faint or had some other trouble, she would have been helped. That was the one good thing about being surrounded by people in a tight space.
So John decided to put the left armrest up and spread his left leg awkwardly over to the other side.
The teenage kid in the aisle seat, who’d been wracked with rattling coughs since he sat down, had also been trying to keep his head down and make sure he had a tissue handy to block anything that came out of his mouth and nose. John appreciated that the kid was obviously trying to protect everyone else on board from whatever he’d caught. He felt bad for the kid. In the midst of a particularly bad bout of coughing, he got up and went back, to the restroom, John assumed.
John switched back over to the audiobook he was listening to. He swiped it away and started another book, one he’d been meaning to listen to at home. It was an autobiography by one of his favorite stand-ups. He’d heard it was hilarious. And he’d been warned not to listen to it in public, unless he didn’t mind being disruptive, because he would be laughing out, loudly.
He started the book, and he tried to focus, but all the while, he kept the two seats beside him in the periphery of his vision.
When the kid didn’t come back after about ten minutes, John began to wonder if he should say something to a flight attendant. Both of his seatmates were missing. And one of them definitely was sick and was last seen suffering a pretty terrible coughing fit.
In all the time the kid had been sitting there, no one had come to check on him. John assumed that someone would have, unless he was flying alone.
John didn’t want to alarm anyone or feel foolish if his seatmates happened to come back while he was in the midst of explaining to a flight attendant that he was worried about them. So he decided he would go back to where the flight attendants were stationed, where they kept the snacks and drinks cart, and quietly speak to someone about his concerns. That way, he’d also get a chance to look around and see if it just so happened that his seatmates were seated elsewhere.
He recalled the announcement that it was a full flight. So if his seatmates were sitting elsewhere, with friends or something, they would have to switch with someone. The seats beside John would have been occupied by others.
It did feel good to get up and stretch his legs, and walk a little. He glanced around, pretending to look for someone specific that he knew so he wouldn’t seem suspicious. But most of the people he glanced at were asleep, occupied with some kind of device either for work or entertainment, or conversing with others. Only a few people caught his eye, and when he smiled at them, they smiled back and looked away. It would appear he wasn’t as suspicious or creepy as he’d feared he would seem.
A couple of the flight attendants were in conversation when he interrupted and briefly explained his concerns.
But saying it out loud, he sounded a little foolish to himself, so he laughed and waved a hand. “I’m probably just being a worrywart for nothing. But I figure better safe than sorry.”
The flight attendants agreed. And they said they’d look for his missing seatmates, and if they returned in the meantime, they asked if John would come back and let them know. They would be serving the final snacks for the flight in about fifteen minutes. They would check in with him then.
John thanked them and returned to his seat, feeling better, and feeling relieved that the burden was now shifted onto the flight attendants.
When he returned to his seat, he happened to glance over at the other side of his row, and see that all three seats on that side were empty.
Very funny, John thought, though he didn’t know who or what he was addressing.
He hadn’t been paying much attention to that other side of the row. For one thing, he was in the middle seat, and the teen had been blocking him. For another, he typically only paid attention to the people sitting next to him on flights.
John had plenty of space to maneuver now. He put away his earbuds. He reached down to his backpack and pulled out his tablet. He glanced over and across the aisle.
As he pulled up a book to read on his tablet, he kept an eye on the seats across the aisle. None of those people had yet returned. And no one else seemed to have noticed. The people in the other rows continued on, watching their movies, working on their spreadsheets, making friends with stranger, or trying to sleep.
It was chilly in the cabin, but John felt moisture forming at his temple, along the back of his neck, and his back. Cold sweat.
It was probably just a coincidence. Everyone in his row being gone. But he decided he would take a walk, up and down the entire length of the coach section, pretending he was just getting some exercise, and he would search for his missing seatmates. They had to be somewhere onboard. He didn’t know if he would be allowed to visit first class—probably not. And he wasn’t even sure if his flight had a business class. But if only for his own piece of mind, he had to try something else.
Various scenarios ran through his mind. That all five people actually knew each other and were planning a hostage takeover. He wondered if there was a federal marshal onboard, or if they still did that. Or maybe they all knew each other but not for criminal purposes. Maybe they had permission from the pilot and the flight attendants to prepare some kind of surprise for another passenger, like a marriage proposal. And he just happened to be the odd man out in his row. But if that were the case, wouldn’t the flight attendants have clued him in, both so he wouldn’t worry or make a scene, and so he wouldn’t ruin the surprise?
And of course, the most ridiculous scenario, was that John himself had made them vanish.
He’d made them vanish with the thoughtless wish he’d uttered only in his mind.
As promised, the snacks and drinks cart appeared in the aisle. John spotted it coming up and decided that he would add to his report about his missing seatmates, and mention the people across the aisle.
This time, he was not self-conscious about who heard. When the flight attendant leaned over to ask if he wanted anything, he told her that he was fine, but he hadn’t seen his seatmates in a couple of hours, and he knew it was a full flight, so he was wondering if they were okay, and now all the people in the seats across from him were gone too.
But again, hearing himself say it out loud, it didn’t sound as reasonable. He downplayed his report with a shrug. “Maybe it’s a coincidence, but I figure I can’t go check on them in first class or anything, so maybe you can do that?”
“They all left you alone, huh?” the flight attendant joked with a smile.
She assured him that she or one of the others would check on the people assigned to the seats in his row, and see if they were in some other part of the plane.
But after the cart finished serving everyone, and after he waited another ten minutes, no one followed up with him. He checked the time. There were less than two hours left in the flight. So he went back to the flight attendant’s station and attempted another follow-up.
The flight attendant he spoke to was handling the trash. She was the first of the two attendants he’d reported his concerns to.
“Okay, well, I can tell you this,” she said. “If no one has gotten back to you, and if you didn’t hear us or the pilot making any announcements that’s good news. It means everyone is accounted for. We’ve had a few minor emergencies to deal with, and we’re a bit short-staffed this flight, so I apologize that none of us were able to get back to you. It doesn’t mean we didn’t take your report seriously. We have to. Missing passengers could be a safety issue for everyone onboard.”
John nodded as she spoke. “So…that means someone checked on them, right? Where are they if you don’t mind my asking?”
As she took a breath to answer, the plane jolted slightly.
A few empty soda cans tumbled to the floor. She bent to pick them up. John bent down with her and helped. She smiled and thanked him as the plane was again jostled.
“Sir, you should get back to your seat,” she said. “We’re getting closer to our destination and there’s some stormy weather in the forecast.”
John heard a familiar ding. He rose and turned to see that all the “fasten seatbelt” lights were on.
He turned to the flight attendant.
“Sir, return to your seat please.”
He sighed and returned to his seat. As he walked back, he realized that he hadn’t once been afraid that he too would vanish, like his seatmates. And he wasn’t actually convinced that all five people knew each other, either in friendship or for crime. He believed they were what they presented themselves as being.
The plane experienced moderate turbulence for the next half hour, and even after it seemed to have leveled off, the “fasten seatbelt” signs remained on. Half an hour later, they experienced another bout of turbulence.
John remained in his middle seat, but he reached over to the window and pushed the shade up.
Rain streaked across the window. The plane’s wing was not visible from his row, and he was glad it wasn’t. The mystery of his missing fellow passengers was still something that could have a reasonable, logical, and harmless explanation. But if he’d looked out the window and seen a figure standing on the plane’s wing, or looked back around to find that he was now the only passenger onboard, then he truly would have questioned his sanity.
The turbulence let up for the last half hour or so of the flight, though the rain and dark clouds remained.
The plane landed.
As it taxied, John tried to decide what he would do. Would he stay in his seat and get off last, so he could see if his seatmates returned for their stuff? And if they didn’t, would he then stay, or be allowed to stay, until someone searched for the missing people?
Or would he leave the plane as soon as he could, following the flow, as he typically did, and then wait around and watch for his fellow seatmates to come through the gate?
John decided to do what he normally would not have done. He decided to stay. If they were accounted for, if they were all right, they would come over to their originally assigned seats to get their stuff. So would the people across the aisle.
As the other passengers rose from their seats, and started taking their belongings out of the overhead bins, and as they started moving forward, leaving the plane, John glanced over across the aisle.
The seats were empty. And the spaces in front of the seats seemed to be empty too. He couldn’t quite see with the flow of people passing by. But he didn’t see any bags or backpacks. But the seats beside him still had his seatmates’ stuff. Those headphones still lay on the window seat. The young woman’s bag was still there, a canvas bag with a one of those planner notebooks sticking out of one corner. And the aisle seat beside him still had that backpack with the thermos in the side pocket.
John was still sitting in his seat when a flight attendant came by to ask if he was having a problem.
He pointed to his seatmates’ stuff. It was undeniable now. The people across the aisle, he couldn’t account for them. Their stuff was gone. But the young woman and the teenage kid, their stuff was still there.
The flight attendant who’d come over was not either of the attendants he’d spoken to earlier. This one frowned at the stuff as if he’d just noticed.
He made a beckoning gesture to John with his hand and said, “Yes, I see, sir. Thank you. We’ll take care of it.” He called out to one of his colleagues and asked her to check the restroom.
“Are they with you?” the attendant asked.
John shook his head. “No, but—“
“Okay, then, sir, we’ll take care of it. But I need you to leave the plane. And thank you for flying with us.”
John pictured the scene he might cause if he had to be forcibly removed from the plane. He stood up, fetched his carry-on, and left. He noticed that his heart was beating, not fast, just hard. He felt it thudding in his chest. As he got to the end of the aisle, he glanced back once more and saw two of the flight attendants standing at his row, looking down at his seat.
John exited the gate. Since he was the last one to leave, most of the passengers had dispersed. But some were still by the gate. Near the restrooms, a woman and a child were waiting in front of three carry-ons and a couple of backpacks. John recognized them from when he was boarding. And he recognized the guy carrying a violin case with a hundred stickers on it. He’d noticed the case as the guy passed by when everyone was leaving the plane. The guy was pacing back and forth as he had an animated conversation with someone about a reservation.
And he spotted a young woman with a canvas bag—
John gasped. His heart almost stopped.
It was her. The woman in the window seat. She had just come out of the ladies’ restroom. She noticed that her shoelace was untied, so she stepped away from the path of traffic to and from the restroom, and bent down to tie it.
John heart was thudding as he walked toward her.
“Excuse me,” he said as he stopped before her.
She looked up, and John confirmed, it was her. He hadn’t really seen the teen’s face, but he had seen this young woman’s face, and it was her.
John was breathless for a moment.
She raised her brows.
“I’m sorry,” he said. He was breathless with relief. “I…you were sitting in my row at the window seat, and you just…I thought you left for the bathroom, but you were gone for the rest of the flight. I reported it to the flight attendants and everything.”
She furrowed her brow. “Why?”
“Just…better safe than sorry, in case you’d gotten sick or something.” John realized that he wasn’t quite making sense, wasn’t giving her any context. “The other people in the aisle disappeared too after you, so…it was weird. I just wanted to say I’m glad you’re…not sick.” Now it was John who furrowed his brow. “But, when did you get off the plane? I was waiting in my seat to make sure you and the boy sitting next to me were okay. You both left your stuff, so I figured you’d come back to get it.”
She finished tying her shoelace and rose. “Yeah, I’m good.”
“It’s weird. It was a full flight, so I was wondering where you all were.”
There was a pause while she looked at him as if she was trying to decide whether or not she should engage in conversation with him.
Her phone began to ring, and John noticed that her face, which had tightened, suddenly loosened as she quickly answered. She gave John a quick smile and a wave and started to walk away, glancing behind herself. He assumed she was making sure he didn’t follow.
John couldn’t help but to watch her walk away. It was as if he were expecting her—or maybe daring her—to vanish before his eyes.
And as he watched her, he noticed another familiar figure.
The boy. The teenage boy was walking along right behind her. John recognized his backpack and the thermos in the side pocket and the dark denim jacket with the woolly collar.
The boy too was on his cell phone, and rushing down the walkway. John could have chased him down, but then he imagined what he would say to the boy. The boy had never once looked up. He probably didn’t know what the guy sitting next to him for half the flight looked like. And if John asked if the boy was all right, he would probably get a negative answer, considering the kid was still coughing ugly, mucuosy coughs.
As John was watching the kid pull away, the flight attendants passed by him. He didn’t hesitate to walk up to them.
“Excuse me, I don’t know if you remember, but I reported to you that the people in my row were missing.” He was trying to summarize since the flight attendant kept walking along, but in the process he thought he sounded a little paranoid. “Did you ever track down all those people in my row? No one got back to me. I hope that means everyone was okay.”
She stopped and placed a hand on his arm. Her fellow flight attendants continued on. “We did, sir,” she said. “And everyone was present and accounted for. It was nice of you to worry about your fellow passengers though. I’m sure if something had happened to any of them, their loved ones would have been glad someone was keeping track of them.”
She started walking away, and he asked. “Where were they?”
She turned back to him.
John raised his brows. “It was a full flight, wasn’t it?”
She nodded. “It was.” She smiled. “It must have been nice to have the row to yourself.”
It would have been, John thought, if I wasn’t worried about my fellow passengers the whole time.
She half -turned away from him as she said, “I’ve got another flight to catch, but if you still have questions about your flight, you can talk to the attendants at our information desk.”
John nodded as she walked away. He glanced around, but couldn’t say if he recognized any of the people who’d sat across the aisle from him. He hadn’t seen them, really.
But his two seatmates seemed to be all right. And the flight attendants had been busy. He had noticed them rushing back and forth throughout the whole flight. Maybe that’s why no one had had the chance to get back to John about his concerns.
“They’re okay. That’s what important,” John said to himself. He would have to accept that it was a mystery he would never solve.
But he could still wonder. And he wondered. If his seatmates had vanished so that his wish for more room in his row could be fulfilled, then why did that wish, of all wishes, come true? John wished for things all the time.
Why that wish?
Copyright © 2019 Nila L. Patel