Short fiction by Chris Negron
If the kid had been in a fight, he’d lost it badly. Black eye. Blood-red pupil. Cast on his forearm. Neck and bicep covered in a quilt of multi-colored bruises. Even his clothes were at odds with each other. Loose-fitting Red Sox t-shirt, Yankees sweats. Who had dressed him in the contrasting colors of arch rivals? Someone, because this kid, on this day, all slumped over in his wheelchair, looked like he couldn’t have possibly dressed himself.
The kid looked to be in his late twenties. An old man in a crumpled red vest pushed him forward, weaving past the standing passengers waiting to board, calling out “excuse me” to annoyed businessmen who refused to move for fear of losing their spot in the Sky Priority lane.
They reached the podium. Gate D37. The kid moaned and slurred. The gate agent, a prim, high-voiced thirty-something who’d been setting an efficient gate-tone for the better part of the past gate-hour, because, let’s face it, time here passed differently, lining passengers up, assigning seats, announcing the status of the incoming flight, turned at the sound of the kid’s suffering. He put one hand up, a stop sign. He studied the kid’s bruised, flaccid form with a raised eyebrow.
We were pre-boarding. Moments ago, the same agent had welcomed aboard passengers with small children and those who needed assistance. This kid was the very definition of needs assistance. Still, the agent pursed his lips and hesitated. He snatched up his black, gate-phone and paced to a remote gate-corner, stretching the cord across the jetway door like caution tape.
The beat up kid pushed himself out of the chair and stood, looking around with a bewildered expression, like he’d just been born right there in the terminal. Then, with another pronounced moan, he leaned against the wall before sliding down it and flopping into a seated position on the floor.
The gate agent’s eyes widened. The speed of his distant whisper-talk picked up. The phone cord, if it was possible, stretched out longer.
It had been a really long week. Four days of constant meetings that made me feel like I had eaten, slept, pissed in the same damn tiny conference room. I just wanted to be home, kiss my wife, tuck in the girls, crack open a beer.
A woman with shifty eyes whispered judgment to her husband. Drugs, she said around a bunch of other words. I glanced at the kid again. He was picking at the covering on his arm, and I could see now it wasn’t a cast. More like a plastic brace secured to his wrist by an ace bandage. He worked a clip free and the coiled gauze sprung loose, unraveling onto the floor between his spread legs, pooling in front of his crotch.
Tweaker? Beat up over some drug deal gone bad? Maybe.
“If you want to board, sir, you’ll have to get back in the chair,” the gate agent, covering his phone with one hand, warned. His gaze shifted from the kid to the old man and back again.
The old man shrugged. He staggered over and spoke to the kid. I couldn’t hear what he said, but the kid’s reply was so loud they probably heard him over at D36.
“I can do it,” he slurred. Then he moaned, staring at his wrist as if it had betrayed him with sudden pain. He wound the bandage back into position.
Another gate agent stood over the kid now. Another concerned expression. Next a flight attendant emerged from the bowels of the plane. Dark blue jackets, all three. Erect posture. Harsh whispers. They pointed. They gathered. Three became four, then five. They strutted about in a circle, directing the old man.
How many crows before you had a murder? I couldn’t remember.
The old man gently tugged at the kid, looping both hands under one armpit―the good arm on the good side, because I realized now most of the damage was on the kid’s right side―the bloody-pupiled black eye, the cast-like contraption, the deep bruising on his neck that must’ve continued down across his chest and shoulder because it re-emerged from his shirtsleeve.
Only after the first attempt failed did the gate agents step forward to help. They struggled with the dead weight of the kid, too wasted and beat up to help himself much, but finally returned him to the chair. The old man wheeled the kid over a lip separating the terminal from the jetway, then continued down toward the plane. The flight attendant bustled after them, pointing, directing.
A few minutes later, the old man came back with an empty wheelchair.
“Do you want to sit here?”
The beat-up kid leaned back against the window, one leg stretched across the rest of his row, all three seats. Did I? I double-checked my boarding pass. Yes, I was in row 21, but across the aisle, on the two-seat side. My luck.
“I’m over here,” I explained, pointing above me at the seat numbering, AC on my side, DEF on his. “A. I like the window.” I smiled and showed him my boarding pass, as if he were TSA and needed to verify it.
“Okay, because if you need to sit here, you can.” The kid spoke way too loudly. He glared at me with that red eye. We’re taking the red eye, my mind quipped, but the words, thankfully, remained lodged in my throat.
Every time the kid opened his mouth, his words thundered out. Desperate stallions emerging from a barn engulfed in flames. They must have heard him in business class, even. Heads all around the plane turned our way. Despite his offer, he made no move to remove his extended leg from 21D and E.
I turned my back on him, bent my knees and hoisted my roller up to the overhead compartment, then slid my laptop bag under the seat. Removed my jacket, folding it neatly and stacking it atop my roller, sat. Pulled out the novel I’d been working on all week, buckled in. Opened the book, eyes intent as the words on the page blurred together.
“I was in a car accident,” the kid slur-shouted at me.
Car accident. Of course.
I looked up from my book. “I’m sorry. Was anyone else hurt?”
“I don’t know,” he said, still too loud. A guy in the row in front of him twisted in his seat to meet my eyes. He widened his.
“Brand new Denali.” The kid made a circling motion with his injured hand. The loose end of his bandage flopped in the air. “They said I rolled it. Seven times. I don’t remember any of it.”
“When did this happen?”
The kid froze, as if the question had paralyzed him. “Monday,” he finally managed.
Hell of a way to start a week. Now it was Friday. Time to go home. Pauline would have a cold Stella waiting for me, long as we landed on time and traffic wasn’t horrendous.
“Didn’t wake up until Wednesday. I was in the hospital. They told me it was bad, real bad. I should’ve died.”
The kid had continued speaking at a high volume, like the knob controlling his voice had broken off. Words oozed out of him. The cocktail of pain meds he must’ve been on made him sound drunk. “Brand new Denali,” he repeated. “Totaled it.”
Heads leaned in our direction for rows upon rows in front of me, people pretending they weren’t listening even though it was obvious they were. I wouldn’t turn to look behind us, but I was sure I’d find the same scene there. Easy as it was to hear the kid’s side of it, the other passengers couldn’t help but to eavesdrop on our conversation.
“I should be dead. Brand new Denali.”
The flight attendant who’d helped direct the kid on the plane hurried between us. “Miss!” the kid called out. “Can I have some water?”
She ignored him. Maybe she didn’t hear him, but that seemed impossible.
The kid jabbed his bandaged arm up, his finger finding the button for his overhead light, not the call button he was clearly searching for. “Miss…” he moaned as his light flared on above his head. He grabbed the bandaged arm with his other hand, tightening the wrapping at first, then reversing direction, playing out the loose end and allowing it to nest onto the seat beside him.
“Owww,” he said, and I wanted to tell him to stop, that the bandage probably needed to stay where the medical professionals had put it, but I said nothing.
He licked his lips as he continued unraveling it. “Thirsty,” he said, looking at me. He craned his neck up. “Miss!” he bellowed. Annoyed expressions turned in our direction. The kid reached up with his good hand and clicked his light off, then on again, then off. The orange call button loomed an inch away from his finger, untouched.
Christ, where were this kid’s parents? His friends? Why was he traveling alone in this condition?
Pauline liked to remind me to “drink a lot of water” before each flight, so I dutifully purchased a bottle from the gift shop near my gate every trip. These bottles, though, always arrived to my destination unopened, and when I’d unpack in the kitchen, she would watch me pull one out and set it on the counter, shaking her head, clucking once, eyeing me, snatching it up, placing it alongside the rest of the water bottles in the pantry, lost to anonymity.
I pulled this trip’s bottle out now. “Here,” I said, offering it across the aisle. “You can have this one.”
“Broke my wrist, too,” the kid said, showing me a now fully-exposed, slightly puffy forearm. He scratched at it, and I winced when he moaned in pain again. It was as if he didn’t understand he was causing his own discomfort.
“I’m sorry,” I said. I refused to stare at his red and purple arm. “Are you still thirsty?”
The kid blinked at me. Did he even remember saying he was thirsty?
“You can have this water,” I repeated.
He removed his leg from the seats for the first time and leaned forward to reach for the bottle with his good hand. We both stretched, and it seemed maybe we couldn’t get close enough to make the exchange, but finally his fingers grasped the plastic, closed on it, and I let go, and he crashed back into position against the window.
“Thanks,” he said. For the first time, he hadn’t shouted.
“You’re welcome.” Pauline would be proud her water had done some good. And me, I could go back to my book.
One paragraph in and the kid cried out again. “Miss!” He was holding the bottle in the air, waving it at that same passing flight attendant. “Can you open this?” he pleaded.
She tried to sound pleasant, even with one finger in the air and the perturbed frown on her face. “One moment, sir, okay? We’re trying to finish the boarding process.” She continued hurrying toward the back of the plane.
The kid’s expression slackened. He tried to use the fingers of the hand at the end of that puffy wrist to twist the cap off, but they couldn’t find purchase. He sighed, then tucked the bottle between his legs and attempted to employ his good hand to remove the cap.
“I should’ve done that for you,” I said. “Here.” I lurched up but my seatbelt stopped me abruptly. I unlatched it, slid from 21A, over 21C―why did they skip the B?―all the way to 21D, only a few feet to cross yet a chasm of space. Was it unlucky, the B, like having the thirteenth floor in a building? Was it improper, like talking about an old girlfriend on a date? We were supposed to maintain these spaces, these un-named, label-less open spots that filled our lives, our buildings, our planes. Burdens to bear, unmentionables. People don’t want to hear about your troubles, my mother had told me long ago. Your thirteenth floors, your seat Bs. They give us space, separate us from one another.
I helped a friend build his deck once. You used a pencil to space out the slats. Every one, the same distance apart.
That trip to Asia last year, all those missing fourth floors because “four” sounds like “death” there.
Now the kid was almost next to me, offering the water bottle back to me. I took it and twisted the cap off. “So your accident was on Monday. You were in the hospital all week?” I asked as I handed it back to him.
Nodding, he cautiously raised the bottle to his lips, sipping gratefully, then gulping greedily, like a man who’d just emerged from the desert.
“So where are you going now?”
The kid swallowed hard. The bottle was half-gone. He swiped the good forearm across his lips. “Home.”
“My mom and dad said I could stay with them a while. Heal up.” He said it skeptically. I stared into his eyes. One was clouded, the other deep red, black around the edges. Impossible to read, but I thought how it would have been to come home to my father at his age, in his condition, and something cold sluiced down my spine. The kid rocked his head back and drank more water, closing those unreadable eyes.
I set the cap to the bottle on the seat between us, in case he didn’t finish it. With the bandage already there, I settled for the front edge of the cushion, but the plane lurched back as soon as I let it go and the cap tumbled to the ground. I hadn’t even noticed we were fully boarded, ready to take off. Both of us, going home.
I bent to pick the cap up.
“You got kids?” he asked as I rose again with the hard white plastic tucked between two fingers.
“Two daughters,” I said. I held out the cap for him and he stared at it for a long moment before taking it with the discolored fingers of his injured hand. He tried to turn the cap over, but fumbled it before regaining control. He gripped it hard.
I latched my seatbelt. Glanced at the novel I’d left behind in my original seat. Watched the flight attendants set up to show us what to do in case of an emergency.
As if they knew. As if anyone knew. Really knew.
I leaned toward the kid, suddenly wanting to close an open spot, label it. Find seat B.
“Hey. What’s your name?”
Chris Negron’s short fiction has previously appeared in WhiskeyPaper, Pithead Chapel, Spilled Milk Magazine, The Vignette Review, Synaesthesia Magazine, and elsewhere. His story “The Pipe Bomb”, which appeared in Split Lip Magazine, was longlisted for wigleaf.com‘s Top 50 (very) Short Stories of 2015. He can usually be found in some coffee shop working on his first novel or another short story. Learn more at chrisnegron.com.