01 Feb There’s someone on this flight who doesn’t belong
Every seat has been filled. The aisles are empty. We’ve boarded and taken off; all while a nervous-looking man stands, mysteriously, at the back of the plane.
No one seems to notice him.
He was already on board when I sat down, in my row at the end of the aisle.
Dressed casually, he carried himself with a sullen anxiety that I found unsettling. I hate flying, always have, but, still, this felt different. I gave him a once over. He looked normal enough. I found no reason to be worried, yet his presence perturbed me.
I shrugged it off. There wasn’t much that I could do.
I tried to relax.
My mind wandered and I found myself casually daydreaming about his identity.
I imagined that he was a middling cop, nervous about transporting a dangerous criminal; then he became a repentant lover, who had broken through security to proclaim his desires to an ex. Maybe he was a disgruntled former employee, waiting to take his vengeance?
As the plane filled and the man took no further action, though, my interest waned. I was tired with worry and already sick of the long flight ahead. His presence drained from my mind and I rested my head against the curved innards of the aircraft and daydreamed instead about nothing at all.
At the sound of takeoff, however, my posture straightened and his blotted shape tilted back into the corner of my eye. I felt compelled to look over.
There he was, still, with a manner slightly less sullen but precisely more anxious, standing opposite the bathroom door, staring down the aisle. No crew member came to seat him.
I double checked the seat-belt sign. On. I glanced over at my two row mates; they didn’t seem to notice.
I coyly nudged the armrest of my neighbor, an elderly woman, who had been reading the in-flight brochure. She kindly looked up and over at me. I gave a friendly smile and silently gestured towards the man standing just behind us. She smiled back, oblivious, and elbowed the old man sitting next to her, who leaned forward, slightly, and donated a half-hearted head-nod. Suddenly, the plane lurched forward and we were thrust back into our seats.
I straightened up, slightly unnerved. I could see the man in of the corner of my eye. He didn’t move.
I raised the blinder on the window next to me. The world outside sped up to a blur. I sat upright and popped my head over the seats, looking for a crew member. I saw a stewardess, near the middle of the plane, sitting comfortably by the emergency exit door, facing towards us. She didn’t seem to notice the standing man.
I glanced out of the window. The runway began to shrink away below us.
Still the man stood.
When the seat belt sign blinked off, I quickly unfastened. I excused myself to the elderly couple and stepped out into the aisle. I was curious. Should I say something? To the man? To the crew? To another passenger? Perhaps he was an air marshal. But weren’t they supposed to blend in? The man wore plain clothes but stood out as everyone sat. Not exactly conspicuous. Maybe he was some kind of inspector for the airline, maybe for the government?
“Are you waiting for the bathroom?” I asked.
He was about my height, though he was slouched slightly against the wall. He had been staring down the aisle, off into the distance, but abruptly glanced my way when questioned.
I held my breath in anticipation, only to receive a dismissive head shake. He turned back around and re-settled into his distant stare.
That was disappointing, I thought. Maybe the daydreams had heightened my expectations. I opened the bathroom door and slunk inside.
I was feeling woozy. I splashed some water on my face and stared at my reflection in the mirror. I didn’t look great, but that wasn’t unusual. I shook my head and walked back out.
The man was still standing there; staring down the aisle.
A small three-person procession had also formed in the space just outside of the bathroom. I slipped out as an elderly woman slipped in. The two older men behind her shambled forward, one met my eyes and gave a polite smile, which I returned; the other had his head down. Neither seemed to acknowledge the standing man. I wondered if they had questioned him as well.
I excused myself to the elderly couple in my row and shuffled back down into my window seat. The man still stood just behind us, transfixed by some distant point. No sense of threat seemed to emanate from him, though, and I was exhausted, so I slunk down in my chair, closed my eyes, and dozed off.
I dreamt of a beautiful summer day in a quiet little town.
I walked along the street, alone but content. Fine two-story brick homes, with shingled roofs, washed up and down my left side like angular waves and a long endless park slithered brightly along my right.
There were no cars on the road, parked or moving, but every other house had a vehicle, or two, stationed in the driveway.
The park was empty too, though there were a half-dozen or so red and white balloons tied to a bench, which sat just off the sidewalk opposite to me, beside a big oak tree.
As I walked, the sun glared above and I noticed a pair of shoes sticking out from behind the oak tree. They were black with brown tips and were pointed directly up, towards the sky.
As I walked forward, I saw that these shoes were connected to a pair of clean grey dress pants and, as I walked further still, I saw that a torso, draped in a pale blue buttoned-up shirt, jutted out from the top of these pants.
A rotund gut concealed any further viewing but it heaved and hoed so as to suggest that a head may rest on the other side.
Curious, I crossed the street and made my way towards the body.
As I approached, the belly began to breathe in heavier exaggerations, until I stood directly over a throbbing mass of clothing.
I looked down for a face but no head appeared.
Instead, a framed mirror weighed down the collar of an empty buttoned-up shirt, which now expanded and deflated so intensely that I thought it might explode.
I looked into the mirror and saw my own reflection… and then someone else’s!
I jumped and spun around. No one was there.
I looked up. No one.
I looked back down.
A root from the big oak tree had curled around the mirror’s frame and slithered its way into the shirt. The two pulsed in rhythm with each other.
A strong breeze blew.
The big oak tree creaked loudly and swayed in the wind, until it looked like it might fall over. Panicked, I gripped the root woven into the shirt and pulled at it with all my might.
I gently awoke.
My left elbow tingled and my hand was numb. I rose up in my seat and gave my arm a shake.
I looked around.
A food cart sauntered forward a few rows up. The elderly lady next to me was reading. Her husband appeared to be asleep. I had to go to the bathroom.
I excused myself to my neighbor and carefully pirouetted past her sleeping companion. Still groggy, I shook my head, wiped my brow and looked up; right into the eyes the standing man.
His eyes were huge, like that of a child, but his face was worn and weathered, and thin strands of pale brown hair fell upon his forehead. He stared right through my soul, more sorrowful than ever, but less anxious than before.
He didn’t speak. I couldn’t speak.
I stumbled backwards a little bit, but caught myself on the edge of a seat.
I felt shell-shocked.
I tried to gather myself but as I stood up a cold heavy force blasted into my backside, hurling me forward. I was barely able to contort my body enough to avoid the man standing in front of me. My back rammed against the bathroom door and I froze like a prisoner caught in a spotlight.
“OH MY GOD!” I heard from the aisle. “I’m so sorry!” I turned. The food cart, manned by a distressed-looking stewardess, rattled in the walkway. “I didn’t see you. I’m so sorry. I only looked down for a second!” She pleaded.
“I-It’s alright,” I stammered, as I straightened up and tried to compose myself. “I wasn’t paying attention. It’s my fault.”
The stewardess furrowed her brow and squinted her eyes. “Are you alright?” she asked.
“Everything but my pride,” I responded, dryly.
I was shaken up inside but I didn’t want to make a fuss. I composed my outward appearance.
I turned to the standing man, contemplating whether or not I should even bother apologizing for the ruckus. He seemed indifferent to the whole situation. He looked ill. Did the stewardess notice? Why didn’t she, or anyone else, try to seat him during takeoff? He must have some sort of authority, but he appeared so fragile and sickly.
I looked back at the flight attendant to gauge her interest. She didn’t seem alarmed.
“Excuse me,” she said, politely, as she began to slowly push the food cart forward again, “I need to get by.”
I gave my head a shake. I opened up the bathroom door and slunk away inside.
I felt panicked. If the man was sick, he should get help. Someone must have already approached him, though. It’s not like he was hiding. The stewardess didn’t seem concerned at all. Everything must be under control. Still, I couldn’t shake this feeling of impending doom. I wasn’t sure what to do.
I looked in the mirror, to calm myself, but didn’t like what I saw. I turned towards the inside of the bathroom door and lay my forehead against it. I put my face in my hands and tried to gather myself.
What was I getting so worked up over?
Was I getting sick? Was I going crazy? Maybe I’m just hungry… when did I last eat? I strained to remember. The only memory of food that I could resuscitate on the spot was from a meal that had taken place at least a few nights earlier.
My eyes began to well up as I thought about that dinner. Maybe I was becoming feverish.
I rubbed my cheeks.
My wife and I had made roast beef and Yorkshire pudding that night. It was an old family recipe. My parents used to make it for my brothers and I growing up. We made it for our own kids now. My parents had passed away years ago. God, I missed them. I couldn’t wait for this god-forsaken plane ride to be over, so that I could see my family again.
I was getting flustered. I just needed to eat, I told myself – that special dinner was plentiful, but even something as tender and delicious as a good roast beef can’t last a man a lifetime. I resolved to hunt down the food cart that had assaulted me earlier and plunder it with a vengeance.
I tossed some water on my face, took a deep breath, and stepped out of the bathroom.
I don’t know what I was expecting, but there he was: the mystery man, just… standing there.
I need to ask about him too, I thought. For my own sake.
He was in the same place he had been this whole time, staring off into the distance. I eyed him cautiously as I searched for the stewardess in the back. She wasn’t there. I turned and gazed off into the distance and saw her chatting with a fellow crew member closer to the front of the plane. I took off after them.
I passed through a mostly silent field of passengers. Nearly everyone was lost in their own little world. People were sleeping, reading, watching in-flight entertainment. Very few were talking. There was a hushed air about the cabin. Most seemed to be traveling alone. I noticed that a majority of the plane’s population were elderly. Three or four middle-aged individuals stood out, as did a few unaccompanied youths. A cloth-wrapped infant was being rocked to sleep by a young woman in an aisle seat and three young men, outfitted in army attire, quietly joked around near the emergency exits. The rest of the plane, however, was decidedly more aged and reserved.
Was I headed to Florida? I genuinely couldn’t remember…
“Can I help you?”
The two flight attendants suddenly stood before me.
“Uh, yeah, sorry.” I stammered, jolted out of my inquisitive reverie.
“Is it too late to order some food?” I asked, feeling a little faint.
“It is, unfortunately,” answered the stewardess. “We’re about to make our descent.”
I was surprised. For some reason I had expected a lengthier flight. Maybe I had slept for longer than I realized.
“You should return to your seat,” she smiled, “the seat-belt sign will be turning on momentarily.”
“OK,” I yielded.
I turned around and looked down the aisle. The standing man stared back.
“Uh, actually, can I ask you a question?” I said, turning back around.
“Yes, sir,” responded the stewardess, politely.
I wasn’t exactly sure what to say, or how to put it.
I gathered myself, once again.
“Um, well… do you see that man standing outside the bathroom?” I asked, pointing back up the aisle, towards him. I immediately regretted my approach. What if I was actually going crazy? What if I had a fever and was hallucinating? I didn’t want to scare anyone. If I was pointing towards a piece of empty space and proclaiming that an invisible man was harassing me, then this flight was going to get really tense for everyone, really fast. You can never rest when a maniac is in your midst.
“Yes,” replied the stewardess.
“Oh.” I blurted out. I didn’t know whether to feel relieved or more worried. I had seriously considered that she might not be able to see him.
“Well, um, he’s been standing outside the bathroom since takeoff. I don’t know if he’s ill, or if he’s a special part of the crew, or something, I don’t know, but he hasn’t sat down once since I boarded. He doesn’t look well, either. He looks worried and sickly and he hasn’t been responsive. Is he part of the crew?”
“No,” replied the stewardess.
“Oh. Well, I mean… shouldn’t we help him to his seat, then? If we’re about to land, he should be seated, right?”
I was sweating a little bit now and more worried than before. None of this really made any sense.
“And where do you suggest we seat him, sir?” replied the stewardess, firmly.
“What?” I asked, genuinely shocked by the flippancy of her response. I turned around and looked for an empty seat. Surely there was one, how else would he have gotten on the plane? If he wasn’t part of the crew, he needed a ticket. A ticket would have a seat. I frantically looked around. Every seat was filled.
Every seat except for mine.
I began to sweat profusely. I felt fevered and exhausted. A tinge of adrenaline rushed through my body. I looked up and out again, at the mystery man. He stared back.
I turned to the flight attendant.“What do you mean? He doesn’t have a seat? Did you check his ticket? How did he get onboard? What’s he going to do while we land?” I was becoming frantic.
“You could give him your seat,” suggested the stewardess, matter-of-factly.
“…but…” I mumbled, “then where would I sit?”
She didn’t respond.
I looked helplessly at the other flight attendant, a steward. He said nothing.
I felt like I was going to be sick to my stomach. I needed to sit down.
I wondered who looked worse right now, me or the standing man.
Should I give him my seat? I looked up at him. Even from far away I could see that he looked gravely ill. No one was helping him. No one was helping either of us.
“I need to sit…” I uttered. I felt like I was about to lose consciousness.
“It’s you or him,” I heard.
“Why…?” I whispered.
“… There’s only one seat left…” someone said. “… and he’s here for yours.”
My stomach dropped the full 7 miles below my feet.
My vision blurred and my body felt faint. I turned around, back towards the mysterious man.
What the hell was going on.
I tried to shout but nothing came out. I grabbed the edges of the surrounding seats and pulled myself towards him. I needed to get back to my seat. I picked up steam and drew near but still he did not move.
“Don’t… take… my… seat…” I sputtered out.
No one paid us any attention.
I reached the last row almost on my knees. I gripped the top of a seat and pulled myself up. I stood for a second, facing down my row, towards my empty seat, and then fainted sideways, directly into the standing man.
I felt no contact until I hit the ground. My eyes were closed, but I felt the cold hard fabric of the airplane carpet rub against my cheek.
I laid there, exhausted.
Terrified, I mustered what strength I could and clumsily pushed myself up onto my knees.
I kneeled for a second — turned away from the action – and tried to catch my breath. I felt as heavy as a mountain. Slowly, I pushed my way back onto my feet, leaning against the cold plastic wall for support. I turned around, labored and out of breath, and looked forward.
The man was gone.
I became frozen in fear. In the corner of my eye I could see someone in my chair, with thin strands of pale brown hair strewn over huge eyes, staring at me.
In the distance the aisle lights began to shut off, leaving only pure and eternal darkness in their wake. One by one they clicked off as the darkness raced towards me, until a final click enveloped everything in black.
I woke up on my back, with a bright light shining in my face.
“Doctor?” I heard a soft, distant voice ask.
“He’s waking up.”
I tried to raise my left hand to shade my eyes but it was weighed down by a thick tube, which slid from the side of my bed to a mask on my mouth.
I took a deep breath and felt an incredible soreness in my chest.
It hurt so much that I instinctively tried to retreat over the side of the bed.
A firm hand grasped my shoulder and kept me in place.
“Easy now,” said a reassuring voice.
“You’re going to be alright.”
I heard a door open.
“Daddy!?” a voice half-whispered, half-yelled.
A child rushed over to the side of my bed, followed cautiously by a woman holding an infant.
They all looked familiar.
It was my family.
“He might not have the strength to speak right now, but the operation was successful,” explained the reassuring voice.
“He’s got a new pair of lungs and a heart, all from the same donor. They were made available late last night and rushed over just in time for an emergency surgery.”
Someone began to cry. They sounded grateful.
I felt the warm weight of a child rest gently on my shoulder and a loving hand grasp mine. I held both with all my strength and dozed of contently.
At Christmas, we had a re-creation of what we had once thought was going to be my last meal: roast beef and Yorkshire pudding. Everybody was invited. Extended family from all over the country poured into our home to celebrate. Long-time friends stopped by, early in the evening — on the way to family dinners of their own — to offer their congratulations, and express their joy and relief at my recovery.
Near the end of the night, after all the memories and laughter had been given their time and our bellies were full and people started to slowly drain out, I took my brothers and young son upstairs to my home office, for our traditional Christmas-time glass of bourbon. I poured each a cup as they looked fondly over the framed pictures that cluttered the room.
“Is that him?” I heard.
I looked up and directed my attention to a photo that was suspended just off to the right and just above the large family portrait that hung as a centerpiece on the wall across from my desk.
“Yep. That’s our savior,” I said, looking down at my baby boy, asleep in my arms. I kissed his forehead and smiled gratefully.
“Well, Cheers!” declared my brother.
“Cheers!” We all chanted, raising our glasses.
And then we had a drink for the man in the picture on my wall, a man who none of us had ever met.
He smiled back gently from a boat somewhere out at sea, with his brown hair windswept to the side and a child, half-in-frame, sitting precariously on his lap. His face was filled with excitement and amusement, as he held up a significant looking fish by the hook with his left hand. You could see the reflection of his wife, taking the picture, in his eyes, they were so big.