Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Heat 5:Horror:The Middle Seat

The Middle Seat

Her daughter cannot bear to be next to strangers and is plagued by so many fears for her age. She worries about poison in her breakfast cereal and sometimes hyperventilates when she becomes aware of her own breathing. She won’t sit alone on the school bus because she doesn’t know if the seat is clean enough, choosing to sit with two girls who mock her tears, but prove that the bus bench is clean. On airplane flights Lizzie gets the window seat and Stella is always in the middle so she can place her body as protection between any stranger and her daughter.

They make the trip between Seattle and Boston several times a year, and have been doing it for years. The overnight non-stops are the easiest flights of all, no wandering the Detroit airport - just six hours to endure on the airplane. In the boarding area Lizzie is already dozing against her shoulder, the antihistamine for her ears acting as a knock-out drug. Stella spots the largest man in the waiting area and says a silent Godless prayer that he won’t be her seatmate.

For two weeks over the holidays she has been accommodating every member of her family in ways that the oldest daughter of an alcoholic excels. She’s the peacemaker, the visitor who knows to pick up the kitchen without commenting on her nieces’ behavior. All the tension in the household, her parents dropping in, her brother-in-law’s politics and problems at work, she has managed to spin it into what will become positive holiday memories. Stella’s the enabler, the peacemaker, but at heart she’s still the teenager who believed that if she were perfect her father would stop drinking, her mother wouldn’t come to her for comfort. She’s tired of the drama and wants to get to her own home.

“Now boarding - all rows.” For once they’re near the front of the plane. Row Four, seats E and F. Stella kisses the top of Lizzie’s head. “Come on sweetie. It’s time to get on the plane.”

There’s already someone in the aisle seat of their row; not the round man. A man in a stocking cap, with shoulder-length black hair is sleeping, chin on his chest. Stella clears her throat slightly, the unspoken signal for please move your legs, but he doesn’t stir. With other passengers stacking up like a chain reaction accident she finally tosses her backpack over him and lifts Lizzie up and over to the window seat. The man makes a slight grunt as she tries to slide herself in front of his legs, but he doesn’t wake. Stella settles Lizzie with pillow and blanket against the window wall and fills the seatback with magazines even though she hopes to sleep. There’s a delay before take-off, but still the man on the aisle doesn’t stir. It’s possible that he’ll sleep the entire trip.

As they finally taxi a flight attendant in the front demonstrates inflating the air vest and pulling down the oxygen mast, but she seems more robot than person; she makes no eye contact and even her skin looks waxy. The flight is completely full, directly behind Stella a lap baby is screaming. But Lizzie is deeply asleep; Shirley Temple curls slightly damp against the pillow, perfect pink lips slightly parted. She is such a beautiful child. Even strangers claim she looks just like her mother but Stella always has to say, “I was never beautiful.”

After being in a house filled with small children, it feels strangely lonely to be seated in the airplane cabin, even surrounded by strangers on every side but one. The parents behind her try to stop the baby from crying, “That’s enough,” the mother keeps saying, as though the infant understands direct orders. Stella just hopes that if she can’t sleep there will be a movie that she wants to watch, anything to make her hours in the middle seat pass more quickly.

Stella feels the plane attain the speed for lift off, then there’s an odd lurch. The man on her left suddenly moans and throws out both of his arms, his right arm pinning Stella. She jerks to look at him. He is looking straight at her with eyes so bloodshot they look caught in a camera’s red eye. She can’t even make out his pupils. He has very white skin with a dark stocking cap pulled low on his forehead. There’s dried blood at one corner of his lips, trailing down to his chin. The way that he looks at her Stella wonders if he speaks English, if he knows where he is at all. She can smell cigarettes and a sweet odor she recognizes as Scotch on his panting breath.
He drops his arms and growls, pawing at the seatbelt restraint without seeming to understand there’s a buckle. The man tries to stand but is jerked back by his seat belt. What the hell is wrong with him, Stella wonder. He struggles again to stand. The waxen flight attendant unbuckles and makes her way to him, holding onto the seat backs as the aircraft bounces. “Sir, the seat belt lights are still illuminated. I cannot tell you that you can move around, but I cannot stop you if you choose to do so.”

The man looks up at her and moans. If she is shocked by his red eyes or keening, it doesn’t register on her face. “Sir, do you understand what I said?” Without waiting for a response, she turns and returns to her jump seat five rows ahead.
The man turns to Stella again, lank hair brushing his shoulders. “I need to piss,” he says. “Is there a bathroom or not?” Surprised that he speaks a language she can understand, Stella points to the bathroom in the front cabin and watches him stumble his way there. She turns again to look at Lizzie, who’s drooling slightly, looking like a doll belted into an adult seat. She will do anything to keep her daughter safe, please let her sleep through this flight.

Stella looks at the flight attendant call button that’s on the cabin on ceiling, flanked by the air nozzle and the light button. If only it wasn’t so obvious if she needs to reach for it. Why can’t there be a discrete button on the remote control that is itself so discretely fitted into the arm of the seat. What would she say? I don’t like my seatmate. I think he’s the type of person who gets removed from the plane in restraints. She and Lizzie were on a flight once when the woman across the aisle nearly died. Stella has always wished that she wasn’t in the middle seat that night, separated from the terrified woman by an indifferent teenage girl and the aisle. They’d made an emergency landing in Detroit. Detroit. Then they’d been stuck in a hellish terminal because the plane couldn’t take off again for hours. Stella sighs. She wants to be home, she’ll do whatever it takes to keep this plane in the air.

The bathroom door opens and the man lurches his way back, falling back into his seat. He leans his head toward her, almost resting his forehead on her shoulder to whisper, “Come as you are.”

“Excuse me?”

“I could barely friggin’ believe it. I went to where he lived. I saw the house and then I saw the signs in the town. In Aberdeen. Come as you are.”

“You’re talking about Kurt Cobain aren’t you? He was from Aberdeen.”

“I have his blood in me. I have Kurt Cobain’s blood. He’s why I’m on this plane even though I hate to fly. He’s why I started playing guitar.” The man turns his red eyes on her again. Does he have pupils at all? He fumbles for something in his pocket and pulls out an active cell phone.

“That’s supposed to be turned off,” Stella tells him. Can’t the man across the aisle see this too? Where are the flight attendants?

“You know, he was murdered. He didn’t kill himself. He was murdered.”

Stella is silent. She’d been living in Seattle when Kurt Cobain died. An electrician had seen his body; he’d been found with a shotgun blast to his head and a suicide note. She knew there were still fans who tried to find the house where he’d killed himself. She appears to be seated next to such a fan. What are the signs of heroin use? Is it red orbs for pupils, greasy hair and obsession? The crew works the aisle writing drink orders on slips of paper. “Budweiser and Jack Daniels,” the man next to her says like a challenge, but nothing crosses the flight attendant’s face. How can you still serve him, Stella wants to shout. Can’t they see he’s impaired?

He drinks in alternating chugs, the Jack Daniels nip tossed aside first. I’m sitting next to a drunk, Stella thinks as she helps him secure the tray table he’s hitting and picks up the Patriots stocking cap from the floor. I’m babysitting a drunk. Just then his head falls onto her shoulder fully. She reaches for the back of his head and tries to push him back into his own seat. A woman across the aisle watches with a weakly sympathetic smile. “What did you just do to me?” the man hisses at her. “What are you injecting me with?”

“Your head fell on my shoulder,” she tells him.

His right hand grabs her at the wrist, holding it an angle that she can’t turn from. “I know what you’re trying do. You’re like fucking Courtney. Full of lies. You’re the one who wanted me dead. You want my talent. You want to suck it out of me like blood.”

Stella closes her eyes and tries to will someone to get help. “Nobody could steal your talent,” she says to him.

“I didn’t want the fame,” he says. “Leeches. Sucking at me. I couldn’t pull them off. I couldn’t get them off me.”

He twists her wrist slightly. “You’ll take care of me when we land won’t you? That’s when I’m the most afraid. It’s when we land.”

“I’ll be right here,” she tells him, feeling her heart pound. People on every side. Why does she feel so alone? Why doesn’t anyone notice that she needs help? Can’t anyone else see that he’s nuts?

He seems to pass out, head back down on his chest. She extricates her wrist and looks longingly at Lizzie, blessedly oblivious. She checks her watch. Still hours to go. How will she get through this? Pulse racing she listens to make sure that he’s asleep then reaches her hand slowly toward the call button, and pushes it. Nothing happens. The icon doesn’t light, no ding, just a sudden strike of his hand again as fast as a snake. This time he rakes nails down the inner flesh of her arm. She gives a gasp. He pulls her arm toward him and leans down to suck at the blood he’s drawn. Stella tries to pull her arm back and looks desperately around to mouth “help” at another passenger. No one looks her way; they’re gazing at the screens on the seats in front of them, seemingly blind to this attack in plain sight.

“Stop,” she whispers, trying to make it roar out of her but she can’t seem to speak. “Help,” she tries again.

Her seatmate looks up at her from her arm, and now she can see his eyes, black irises and pupils. He smiles, and she can see crooked brown teeth. It’s her blood on his lips, so vivid compared to the dried blood on his chin. “Delicious,” he says. “I bet you’re a good mommy.” He looks beyond her to Lizzie and she tries to shift her body to block his view.

“I never eat any sweets. My friends say, Nathan – you must be diabetic or something. I’ve never been tested.” He sucks at her arm, drawing out more blood. “But I like to drink. I drink,” and with that he bites into the underside of her arm, between the elbow and the wrist.

Stella tries to pull her arm back but his hold goes up her arm and pain stops her from pulling her shoulder from its socket. She flails at the seat to try to get attention from behind and then squares her feet to kick against the seat ahead of her. She kicks again. No head comes over the top of the headrest in either direction. What is wrong with everyone? How can it be so hard to scream? It’s like she’s choking on her own fear.

Nathan gives a long lick of her arm, hair trailing through the lines of blood. “Come as you are,” he says again and leans his head back, keeping his fingernails sunken into her raked flesh.

Stella begins to pray. She has never believed in God before, but then again she has never been faced with evil. If evil can exist, maybe God can too, because it doesn’t seem like anyone else on this plane is going to help her. “Get this creep away from me,” she prays, “get this creep away from Lizzie.”

She must have slept. Nathan has let go of her wrist and is drooped beside her. She reaches for the remote control that’s still nestled inside the seat arm and pulls on its tether, pressing the brightness icon until the monitor lights and she can see where the flight is in relation to the United States. Somewhere over Montana, undoubtedly some place called Purgatory.

Her seatmate is conscious but crazed; he roars like a beast when the seatbelt keeps him from rising again. The other passengers risk glances as if he’s a dangerous animal, and they aren’t sure the exhibit glass is thick enough. Stella looks at the marks on her left arm and wonders where they came from? Did the cat scratch her while sleeping in her sister’s basement? Did she tangle with ice skate blades that last day? The man next to her makes retching noises and she wonders if he’ll vomit on her yet. He’s already spilled beer and she has had to push his greasy head off of her shoulder.

For all the fear of the landing her seatmate claimed before passing out, he barely notices when they land. He finally manages to unfasten his seatbelt and stands up during the descent. Stella isn’t going to stop him anymore. Let the flight attendants deal with him. She has survived the flight. Lizzie is safe and finally stirring. She shifts her small head from the pillow on the window to Stella’s right shoulder. Stella bends her head and drinks in the smell of her daughter; it seems like she can smell Lizzie’s blood itself, salty and delicious.


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