First Class by Parker Fendler

I’m no better than the people on the back of the plane. Not really. I just outworked them and made better decisions. These first class seats don’t come cheap and having the means to sit one’s ass in them doesn’t happen by chance. Chrissy the flight attendant plucks a hot towel from her basket with a pair of tongs and hands it to me. She stretches across me to extend one to the woman in the window seat, and I’m granted a view down her blouse. A worn rut of creases etches the cleavage between her slightly sagging tits. Past her prime but bangable. I work my hands through the moist towel careful to obscure my wedding ring (but not my Rolex) under the folds. She smiles. I notice she’s wearing a ring of her own. I squint to make out the tiny solitaire. Husband probably doesn’t make shit. No wonder she’s eye-fucking me. She proceeds to the next row, delivers the remaining towels, and then whirls back as if the paper-thin curtain separating first class from coach is an electric fence.

I hear the baby before I see it. A woman bursts through the curtain clutching the wailing thing. She’s rambling about a blowout, not the hairstyle kind. The lavatories on the other side of the plane are occupied, and she is so sorry for the intrusion. Is there a changing table up here? Through a forced smile, Chrissy says there is. Then the smell hits me, and I glimpse the river of lava running down the baby’s fat leg. I raise the lemon-scented towel to my face and breathe through my mouth. Window Seat Lady mumbles why the hell are we paying exorbitant prices when any sort of riffraff can just barge right in. Chrissy mouths an apology.

A few minutes later, the woman makes her way back down the aisle. The baby is still crying. The mother managed only to cork the bottom end. As she approaches, the sweater vest guy in the aisle seat adjacent to mine stands. He whispers something to her. She shakes her head. He says it’s no big deal and that his seat was upgraded so they could fill the plane. I realize with horror he’s offering her his seat. Is someone going to do something? Yup. The man next to Sweater Vest clears his throat and says he doesn’t mean to be rude, but… Before he can be rude, the woman sets everyone at ease. Her baby has his own assigned seat. That way he can be secured in his car seat. So, she can’t swap with the young man. She passes back through the curtain. I can still hear the howling baby. They must be sitting toward the front.

I insert my headphones so nobody will bother me, and I doze off. Voices wake me. I have no choice but to listen. Window Seat Lady is flabbergasted (her word) they don’t offer Tito’s vodka. Chrissy explains they offer three premium selections, and the woman begrudgingly agrees to Absolut. I open my eyes and fake a yawn as if I haven’t been eavesdropping on this pitiful exchange.

Chrissy places a cocktail napkin on my tray. “Can I get you a drink?”

“Do you have Tito’s?” I ask. I ignore the snort beside me and pause to see if Chrissy gets my humor.

“I’m sorry, sir, but we –”

“Relax. I’m fucking with you.” Not the sharpest tool, I guess. “Gimme a Bloody Mary.”

“Sure. What kind of vod –”

“You pick it,” I say. She jots something down and disappears behind the curtain to the flight attendant’s station.

“Still can’t believe they serve shitty liquor,” Window Seat Lady says.

I close my eyes. Maybe she’ll stop talking.

“I’m Doris, by the way.”

I’ve already named her Karen, but I nod so she can keep thinking she’s Doris. I peek through one open eye. The light catches her face and illuminates the peach fuzz on her upper lip and cheeks. One of those women who thinks peroxide makes her whiskers invisible. She clears her throat to make way for more clumsy small talk. “What brings you to Chicago, er…?

“Tony,” I say. “Business.” I know what’s coming next. I should’ve just said a funeral. Nobody asks who died. Before she can say what type of business, the plane jerks hard right. An overhead bin flies open, and a suitcase crashes to the floor. Somewhere, a glass shatters. The plane stabilizes, and I’m still white knuckling the leather armrest when the pilot’s voice sounds over the intercom.

“Sorry, folks. We’ve hit some turbulence.” He robotically chugs through the rest of the message. Return to your seats, keep your seat belts on, drink service is suspended, nothing to worry about. But the murmurs are all in agreement. That was no turbulence.

After the conspiracy theories are aired, an eerie silence permeates the cabin – except the baby’s cries. He’s pissed. I’m oddly relieved. Smart woman to buck up for a separate seat. For the first time, I realize I could’ve offered mine. She needed two, and Sweater Vest volunteered the one next to me. I frown. My mind doesn’t work that way. Maybe it should. The cramped legroom in coach would’ve been worth it for Karen’s reaction.

I always ignore flight attendants’ preflight demonstrations. Any idiot can fasten a seatbelt and locate an emergency exit with a huge neon sign that says EXIT. But now I find myself digging in the seat back pocket for the aircraft safety card. I scan the trifold with illustrations of puffy yellow slides and passengers hugging their legs in the brace position. Just as I’m thinking yeah that’ll work at thirty thousand feet, the plane jerks again, this one accompanied by a boom. My stomach leaps at the sudden drop in altitude. Several passengers scream. I think I’m one of them. Kar – I mean Doris – squeezes my hand, and I squeeze back. The plane levels off, but the cabin is mayhem. People crying, hugging one another, praying. The pilot comes on and says he is diverting the plane to the closest airport for an emergency landing. I tell Doris it’ll be okay. Then the plane plunges into a full vertical nosedive.

I wake to the hum of an engine. My body gently sways in rhythm with the forward motion. My eyes open. White light fades as images take shape. People. Nooses. What the fuck? Not nooses, oxygen masks. The memories strike like a nail gun through the skull. I’m on a plane. We’re about to crash. I thrash against my seatbelt.

“It’s okay, Tony,” a woman says. A hand rests on my arm. “We’re okay.”

I turn. “D-Doris?”

“That’s right. You passed out. We all did. The pilot said it was the G-force. I guess it was a problem with the navigation system, but they fixed it. We’re no longer in danger.”

Everyone around us is still out. I sweep the dangling oxygen mask aside and tuck it behind my seat rest. “Sounds like an excuse to prevent mass hysteria.”

“Maybe,” she says. “We’re still diverting, though. He said we’ll be on the ground shortly.”

Hopefully, the pilot isn’t full of shit. I don’t want to die. If I get through this, I’ll never set foot on a plane again. In fact, I’ll be doing a lot of things differently. “You live in Chicago?” I ask.

Her eyebrows raise as if to say I know you don’t give a shit where I live. I maintain eye contact. Finally, she shrugs. “Funeral.”

Guilt pricks at me for considering lying about a funeral earlier. “I’m sorry for your loss, Doris.”

“Yeah, well he had it coming. My ex. I’m just coming to support my daughter. She’s just attending out of obligation, I suppose. I plagiarized the obituary from some other dead guy. Said the funeral was for family only. People think we kept it private due to grief, but the truth is, we didn’t think anyone would show. He alienated everyone in his life. He had nobody.”

Nearby passengers are starting to stir. I’m quiet. She turns to me. “Why the long face? I’m the one with the dead ex-husband.”

I’m realizing that my funeral too would be nothing more than a chore for my wife. Also, this near-death experience has triggered thoughts of my own mortality. “Where do you think he is now?”

She shrugs. “The crematorium.”

“You don’t believe in Heaven?” I ask.

“I believe in Hell,” she says. “I suppose I’ll be headed there too. When I get there, I’ll shove my foot up his no-good ass.”

Am I destined to end up there too? When was the last time I did something nice for someone? Suddenly an idea materializes. It’s ludicrous considering recent events, but I feel an overwhelming need to be a better person. I’ll give up my seat for the woman in coach. I bet I could talk Doris into giving hers to the baby.

The baby. He’s still not crying. Something is wrong. The voices on the other side of the plane are escalating. What I thought was excited chatter about our survival is something different. Fear. I rise from my seat and pull the curtain. Everyone is awake now. They’re frantic. Searching? The woman with the baby is nowhere to be seen. Then the horrifying realization strikes me. The sold-out flight is now half empty.

Instinctively, I scan the cabin for a breach in the fuselage. Of course, it’s fine. Everyone is breathing and nobody is getting sucked out. Parents scream for missing kids. Wives scream for missing husbands. They’re just gone. I scan first class. Everyone on this end is here. No wait. Sweater Vest is missing.

The crew. Are they aware of what’s happening? Are they even here? I race to the front. I hear a woman crying. No, she’s moaning. I throw open the curtain. Chrissy is bent over the rolling drink cart her arms splayed wide like the wings of a plane. The pilot is thrusting into her from behind. He grins. “Want to join the Mile High Club, Tony? I think I’ve got some lube around here somewhere.”

Terror grips me. Every part of my being wants to flee. But where?

“Suit yourself,” he says. Then he turns his attention back to Chrissy and taps her shoulder. “Would you be a dear?”

She obediently raises one of her wings. He takes her hand in his. “What would your husband think?” He places one of her fingers against his lips in a shushing gesture. “Don’t worry, I won’t tell.” Then he inserts her finger in his mouth. He suddenly gnashes down with his molars. A piercing scream escapes her lips. It echoes in the narrow space as if it’s coming from every direction, like the walls themselves are screaming. I run.

With nowhere to go, I make it as far as my seat. Doris is muttering to herself. I scramble next to her and grip her by the shoulders. She’s in a trance. My body feels numb. I’m probably going into shock. I release the tray from the seat in front of me, slump forward onto it with my face buried in my arms, and sob.

The squeak of the rolling drink cart silences the cacophony of screams, wails, and chants. I dare not emerge from the burrow of safety within my arms. Squeak. Squeak. Squeak. Stop.

“Hey there.” Chrissy’s voice. I can’t bear to look at her. “One Bloody Mary to take the edge off. Sorry it’s not Tito’s. Oh, and here’s something for your reading pleasure.” I hear the tap of a glass and the rustle of a newspaper as she sets them on my tray. She squeaks on to the next row.

I need liquor as I’ve never needed it before. My head still cradled in the nook of my right arm, I fumble for my drink with my left. I palm the glass and roll the celery stalk between my fingers. I raise my head and bring the glass toward my lips. As I’m about to gulp it, the smell hits me. Blood. My eyes fly open and regard the contents of the glass. Not a celery stalk, a finger! A tiny solitaire diamond ring still encircles it above the knuckle. The drink tumbles from my shaking hand soaks the newspaper on my tray. I can still make out the headline. PLANE CRASH – FLIGHT 765 TO CHICAGO. All one hundred eighty passengers dead. Ice shoots through my body paralyzing me, freezing the scream that tries to escape my lips. I’m already dead. All of us are. And the good ones have disappeared.

A crackle of the intercom and the pilot’s voice. “Please adjust your tray tables and return your seats to their upright position. We’re making our final descent.”

Parker has been conjuring up stories ever since he could dream. He recently began transcribing them after waking. His fiction has appeared in Sixfold, Across the Margin, and Amarillo Bay (forthcoming).