At the Edge of the Universe
I SAT BESIDE THE WINDOW pretending to read Plato’s Republic as the rest of the passengers boarding Flight 1184 zombie-walked to their seats. The woman next to me refused to lower her armrest, and the chemical sweetness of her perfume coated my tongue and the back of my throat. I considered both acts of war.
In the aisle seat a middle-aged frat bro babbled on his phone, shamelessly describing every horrifying detail of his previous night’s date, including how drunk he’d gotten the girl he’d taken home. And he ended each sentence with “like, awesome, right?”
It sounded less, like, awesome, and more like date rape.
“Flying alone?” asked the perfume terrorist. She had a Chihuahua face—all bulging eyes and tiny teeth—and wore her hair in a helmet of brassy curls.
“Yeah,” I said. “I’m searching for someone.”
“And they’re in Seattle?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “Which is why I’m searching for him rather than meeting him.” I wasn’t exactly trying to be rude, but I hated flying. I understood the mechanics, knew my risk of dying in a car was far greater than in a plane, but cramming a couple hundred sweaty, obnoxious people into a metal tube that cruised through the air at five hundred and fifty miles per hour short-circuited my rational brain and loosed the primal, terrified aspect that didn’t grasp science and assumed flying the unholy product of black magic. Reading and not having to make small talk kept me calmish. Not that my oblivious seatmate had noticed.
The woman tapped my book with a well-manicured fingernail. “It’s nice to see a young man reading instead of staring at a phone.”
“Let me tell you about cell phones,” I said. “They’re two-way communication devices designed to slurp up your private personal information through their cameras and microphones and myriad sensors, then blast that data into the air for any determined creep to snatch and paw through. You believe no one is watching because it helps you sleep at night, but someone is always watching. And listening and collecting your GPS coordinates, from which they can extrapolate that
you swing by Starbucks every morning on your drive to work, except on Fridays when you take the long way so you can grab a tasty breakfast sandwich. Phones are doors into our lives, and the government keeps copies of all the keys.”
The woman smiled, her coral lips taut, and lowered the armrest.
But I hadn’t really spoken to anyone in so long that instead of returning to my book, I kept talking.
“My boyfriend disappeared,” I said. I peered over the seats at a gangly flight attendant near the cockpit who was facing the exit, gesturing at someone with his hands.
“Thomas Ross. He’s who I’m hoping to find in Seattle.” The flight attendant glanced over his shoulder, his hawkish nose a compass needle pointing directly at me.
“Interesting,” the woman said, though her tone said otherwise.
“Tommy vanished two months ago. I’m the only person looking for him. Not the police or our friends. Not even his parents. He disappeared and they’ve stitched closed the hole in their lives; continued attending their everyone-wins-a-trophy soccer games and forced family suppers, because to them, he never existed.”
The flight attendant slid into the galley to allow a
red-faced sheriff’s deputy wearing a hunter-green uniform onto the plane. A burnished gold star hung over his left breast pocket, and he carried a gun clipped to a belt strapped around his waist.
The sheriff’s officer floated down the aisle, his shiny shaved head swiveling from side to side, scanning each traveler like he possessed a Heads-Up-Display feeding him their names and personal details.
“Tommy’d earned a 3.98 GPA,” I said. “He worked as the assistant editor for the Cloud Lake High Tribune, kicked ass on the debate team. And I’m certain he loved me. It’s the only thing I’m certain of. He wouldn’t have just left.”
The woman, and everyone else on the plane, watched the cop shamble in my direction.
“Teenagers often make rash decisions,” the woman said. “Your friend will turn up.”
Turn up. Like a missing sock or the Batman action figure my older brother had hidden from me when we were younger. Like Tommy wasn’t missing but had simply been misplaced.
“Also,” I said, “the universe is shrinking.”
The sheriff’s officer stopped at my row and faced me. His name tag read BANEGAS. “Oswald Pinkerton? I need you to come with me.”
“No Oswald Pinkerton here,” I said. “Maybe he’s on a different flight.”
The cop puffed out his chest, trying to conjure the illusion that he was tough, but his arms looked like the only thing they were used to lifting was a television remote. “Don’t be difficult, kid.”
“Perhaps you should do as he asks,” the woman said. She tucked her legs under the seat so I could, what, crawl over her?
“Let’s go, Oswald.” Officer Banegas moved aside to allow my seatmates to shuffle into the aisle and clear me a path.
So close. One flight, with a layover in Atlanta, from finding Tommy. Or from crossing off another place he wasn’t and further crushing my remaining hope of ever seeing my boyfriend again. If Palm Beach County’s Least Competent had stopped for coffee or taken a detour to the toilet to feed the sewer gators, the flight attendant would’ve shut the doors, the pilot would’ve taxied to the runway, and I’d have escaped. But maybe this was better. If I’d gone and hadn’t found Tommy, I might have been forced to entertain the possibility that he’d vanished for good. This way, I could continue believing I’d find him.
I sighed, grabbed my backpack, tossed the Republic inside, and followed the deputy off the plane.
Banegas clapped his hand on my shoulder, leaving me no choice but to accept my temporary defeat. The hatch clunked shut, and I resisted the urge to turn around. My feet weighed a hundred pounds each. Clearly, God had cranked up the gravity.
The terminal—with its gaudy, outdated palm-tree-and-pastel Florida decor—greeted us as we exited the jet bridge. Deputy Banegas guided me to a seat in front of the windows with a view of the runway.
“Wait here,” Banegas said. He moved off to the side and mumbled into his shoulder radio.
My plane backed away from the terminal to begin its journey.
I’d planned my getaway perfectly. I’d convinced my parents that Lua, Dustin, and I were road-tripping to Universal Studios for the weekend, and I’d begged Lua to cover for me even though I wouldn’t tell her where I was going. She’d reluctantly agreed after extracting a promise that I’d explain everything when I returned.
I’d paid for the plane ticket using a prepaid credit card and found a place to crash using HouseStay to avoid having to deal with a front-desk clerk who might question my age. I’d even downloaded Seattle public transportation apps and
devised an efficient search pattern that would have allowed me to best utilize my time.
But despite my planning, my plane was flying away without me, and my parents were definitely going to ground me, probably forever.
My life’s pathetic theme song repeated in my head. You failed. You failed. You’re a loser and you failed. Dada da doo dee.
Lua could’ve written better lyrics, but the beat didn’t suck.
Officer Banegas loomed over me. “Come on,” he said. “We’ll wait for your parents in the security office.”
“Can I watch my plane take off at least?” I asked. “Please?”
“Ozzie,” I said. “Only people who hate me call me Oswald.”
“Fine,” Banegas said, annoyed or bored or wishing he’d called in sick. Then he smirked and added, “Oswald.”
I walked to the window. My breath fogged the glass as the last feeble rays of the day lit the sky to the west with the colors of orange-and-pink swirled sorbet. I tracked my plane as it turned at the end of the runway. The wing flaps extended. I’d always wondered at their purpose, but never enough to bother looking it up. I considered asking Deputy Banegas, but he struck me as the type who’d cheated his way through college and had only joined the police force because
he thought carrying a gun would be cool, then had been disappointed to discover the job consisted mostly of filling out paperwork and offered depressingly few opportunities to actually shoot people.
“How’d my parents find me?”
“Hell if I know,” Officer Banegas said.
My plane’s twin engines roared. I couldn’t hear them inside the terminal, but I imagined their growl as the blades spun madly, faster and faster, struggling to reach critical speed before the road ended. I imagined myself still buckled into my seat, gripping the armrests, trying to ignore my seatmate’s fragrance offensive and banal chatter.
The front wheels lifted as the nose pitched up. The air pressure over the top of the wings decreased, allowing my plane to defy gravity. It soared into the sky while I remained rooted to the earth.
Deputy Banegas tapped my shoulder. “Come on, kid.”
“Sure.” I retrieved my backpack and followed Banegas. We’d reached the lone shop in the center of the terminal when the shouting began. People ran to the windows. I ran to the windows.
Banegas yelled after me, cussing and huffing. I ignored him.
I pressed my face to the glass, crowded on both sides by travelers and airport personnel, and watched my plane tumble from the sky and crash into Southern Boulevard on the far side of the fence separating the runway from the road.
I didn’t think about the individuals who died—the perfume bomber, the frat-bro date rapist, the passengers who’d watched Officer Banegas perp-walk me off the plane—only that they burned beautifully.
Then the floor shook; the windows rattled.
Someone screamed, breaking the held-breath paralysis that felt like it had stretched across infinite days though had lasted but the length of a frantic heartbeat.
Officer Banegas’s radio squawked. He stood to my right, his arms limp, his eyes wide, watching the nightmare through the glass like it was a TV screen rather than a window.
“Holy shit,” he said.
Panic spread like a plague. Rumple-suited businessmen with phones permanently attached to their ears, weary parents and hyper children, heartsick halves of couples desperate to reunite with their missed loved ones, usually ornery ticket agents, and every spectrum of humanity between. None were immune. They screamed and huddled under rows of seats and ran and cried, their actions ineffectual. Their tears inadequate to douse my plane’s beautiful fire.
I didn’t cry.
And laughed and laughed and laughed.
It took two paramedics and a shot of something “for my nerves” to dam my laughter, but far more effort to finally quench the flames.