From the author: “Red-Eye” is about journeys, both literal and emotional. The main character is whatever you want them to be, perhaps affected by your beliefs or philosophies. Who they are and what they do is essential to the journeys we take in our lives and the paths we choose to discover. Yet wherever we go and whatever choices we make, our final destination is inevitable.
Content warning: death of an infant, non-violent .
I meet them in the departure lounge while we wait for our flight. A pleasant couple, in their late thirties. Their clothes are smart but rumpled, their heavy eyes ringed by dark shadows of exhaustion. They are accompanied by two children, cherubic beauties both with golden hair and clear blue eyes. Both are very wide awake. One is maybe four or five, the other a darling babe in arms, barely past six months. She babbles softly while her mother rocks her, holding her close to her chest.
The father is nervous, it is clear when he speaks, his voice just a little too loud. Not worried for him, he assures me, he is well accustomed to flying. No, his concern is for the wee one, and by extension the other passengers. He hopes she will not fuss or cry, he doesn’t want to cause upset. They chose the red-eye flight on purpose. They thought the kids would sleep right through.
The day has been quite challenging, he tells me. Entertaining the little ones so that they might stay awake had been much harder work than they anticipated. He jokes that it would be much easier if he could simply give both children a glass of Scotch. He stops and grimaces awkwardly, clearly worried I will judge him for poor taste. I laugh and he relaxes, some tension lifts.
It is their first flight together as a family, they are taking the baby to see his parents, the first time his mother will meet her new grandchild. They’d been estranged, he confides, not spoken to each other kindly in many years. I nod my understanding. I reassure him that family relationships can be challenging. In my experience, they can be fractured by the very smallest thing.
The older child runs over to us and holds up his teddy, demands that I observe. The toy’s name is Timmy, and it is, the child tells me solemnly, very special. My opinion is requested. I appraise it carefully. What do I think of its soft, brown fur? It’s curious and quixotic smile? I tell the child I think it is quite glorious. A very fine specimen of a bear. This all seems satisfactory, and apparently our conversation is complete. The child turns away with the toy in his fist and glues his nose to the huge glass window. It is dark outside, and raining hard. I wonder what he can possibly see.
We board together, as is standard procedure, families and the elderly first, and find our seats are but an aisle apart. The mother struggles with her luggage, the father otherwise engaged by the needs of the older child. She asks me if I would mind holding the baby. She holds the girl towards me. I wince and shy away.
She sees my reticence and starts to apologise. She is so painfully, so awkwardly polite. Most would perceive my reaction as rude, yet she believes her role is to placate me, such is her gentle demeanour. I shake my head and smile as gently as I can.
I tell her I am simply scared that I might drop the child. My body isn’t what it used to be. She returns my smile and nods. She says she understands. The father, finally done securing the boy into his seat, turns and plucks the baby from her arms.
Eventually we start to move. The plane takes off without delay or consequence. Four hundred bodies settle in for the long flight. The older child is swathed in blankets. The father kicks his shoes off, splays his toes and sighs.
The cabin lights are dimmed, seats are reclined. All around me people drift off into sleep, seemingly oblivious to the thunderous rumbling drone of the great engine. We are crammed into a rocket-powered sardine can, 40,000 feet above the sea.
It is a curious feeling being so high above the world like this, surrounded by so many dozing strangers. I never truly get used to it, regardless of how many times I fly. Trust. I feel it keenly.It seeps from them as if it were an odour. They trust the staff to do their jobs correctly. They trust their fellow passengers to let them sleep in peace. They trust the plane will get them safely to their destination.
Not one of them can understand the threads of fate that placed them here. Not like I do.
I sigh and glance across the aisle. The parents and child are deep in sleep. The baby is strapped into her travel seat. Her eyes are open and she pulls at her socks with furious energy until one finally comes free. She shakes it gleefully then thrusts it in her toothless mouth and sucks with vigour. A line of dribble curves around her chin and neck.
She sees me watching her and grows still.
From very old to very young, they all fall quiet when they see me. They always know.
I smile but my features disobey me. My true nature wants to show itself against my will. I can’t resist. I click my fingers and step through time. Around me, every second slows and stretches. It curls itself around a single moment, and then stalls.
I move quickly to her seat and kneel beside her.
“Hey, little one,” I whisper softly. “I’m so, so sorry. It’s time for you to go. It’s not my choice, believe me, but I promise you, it’s better this way.”
She blinks. I know she understands even if she cannot put the knowledge into words. It is a primal instinct, it resonates within a deeper sense of being. The trepidation felt before the final curtain falls, not wanting it to end. It doesn’t matter just how good or long the show has been. It always ends.
Her head tilts, the sock hangs comically from her open mouth like an oversized, blue tongue. She holds her tiny hand towards me and blinks again, more slowly now. Her head dips and she closes both her eyes.
I feel it building up inside me. Need and knowledge all rolled into one. My destiny and my sanctitude. I reach out and touch her forehead. I feel the spark.
Her eyes snap open. Her pupils glow. She starts to cry but makes no sound. Instead, a radiant light emerges from within her and bathes us both in gold.
My costume falls, I am unmasked. My dark robes ooze and flow like mist. My leathery wings unfurl. She giggles as hers swell and grow, trapped beneath her romper. I graze the fabric with my nail. It tears, unleashing her pearlescent feathers.
She floats above me, a whisper of herself, ethereal and now untethered. Her moment here has been short. No doubt, another role will be rewarded. It usually works that way. I do not get to choose. That’s not my place. I do only as is expected of me. I will do so until my master Time is done.
Another spark flares violently and sears my vision. She coos and babbles and is gone. I feel a jolt. The plane hits turbulence and the metal body rattles as it arcs. The air around me warps and spins. A whirling pool of smoke and lights surround me. I shudder, find my body, and return in silence to my assigned seat.
Passengers stir and mumble in their sleep. The baby slumps, head forwards, limp and still. Her porcelain skin now tinted grey. Pink fingernails all blanched.
The mother wakes up slowly, breaking from her slumber as if she’s rising on a gentle wave. She leans towards the baby, her eyes still rimmed by sleep. I see her touch the body. A heartbeat pause. A sudden chill. Her face falls and she pales, her features rearrange themselves into a mask of panic. She shakes the baby’s shoulders with both hands and screams...
I feel a hot tear sting my eye. I catch it in my fingers before it falls. I am so tired and cold. I’m gripped by pain and grief as her emotions surge right through me. A loss only a mother knows. One no mother ever wants. I wish that I could comfort her, to reassure her that this feeling will not last. No, there is no time for it to last.
I hold my hand to the window and place my palm upon the glass. There, again, I feel the jolt. The final spark. Four hundred bodies, four hundred souls. Perspective — that’s what I offer. A balancing of the greater scale. Look inwards through the cabin window; the space seems tight, the people small. Like peering through the wrong end of a telescope. Look outwards and the world is huge. The stars and galaxies immeasurable. Everything you know and feel, all that you remember, it is nothing more than fleeting moments, a snatch of time which adds to life’s immense equation; one in, one out, ad infinitum.
It’s nothing personal, it’s just my job. It’s how it has to be.
I click my fingers. The glass cracks.
The plane ...
This story originally appeared in AHWA Midnight Echo .