An Empty Chair – No. 62

The bawling ricocheted off the plane’s curved bulkheads, underscored by a piercing shriek.

Grant winced and plodded along, hoping with each row the wailing and sobs might subside or he might bypass their source altogether. Seat numbers increased along with the decibels until the plastic windows seemed about to shatter.

Reaching 43, Grant peered up and met a round face as red as a stop sign. The banshee scream bellowed into the aisle from the kid’s maw, the tone warbling in time with the bouncing knee of his mother. In the window seat a ball-caped fellow Grant assumed to be the father rocked a sobbing infant swaddled in canary yellow blankets. He had his eyes closed, head bowed as if he wanted to vanish into the bill’s shade.

Between them the cushion for 43B seemed to shrink.

Sighing, Grant unshouldered his backpack, the rustle against his denim jacket drawing the mother’s weary gaze.

“Is this you?” She tilted her head toward the middle seat, the motion freeing more frazzled tendrils from her pony tail.

“I’m afraid so,” said Grant.

He squeezed against the aisle chair as a passing couple grumbled about the lack of space in the overhead bins and the mother traded her son to her opposite knee.

“We were hoping you might be willing to move.”

Grant’s hopes shot into the stratosphere. “Move?”

“They said they might have a free spot.” The mother arched and peered over the headrest toward the back of the plane.

Following her bend, Grant spied an approaching red haired stewardess. She smiled, a strained stretch of her ruby lips.

“If you’re willing to move sir, I can offer you a seat up front.”

“Um, sure,” said Grant, “whatever I can do to help.”

“Follow me, please.”

Grant shuffled into the nearest row, earning a scowl from the suited man in 42D, and allowing the stewardess to tromp up the aisle. When he started tailing her, Grant felt the spikes of envy launched through the air like the infants wails. Hunching his shoulders, he weaved by the other stragglers working bags into bins, beneath the seats in front of them and cinching belts low and tight across their laps. Murmured conversations noted the noise, although they grew more sympathetic with every distancing step.

Gazing over the seats, Grant sought the vacant one fate had provided. Bald heads, dark-haired ones, Medusa curls, knit caps and slicked hairlines poked above the tweed headrests. None, however, appeared empty. Worry about some kind of mistake simmered, but he held onto hope as he followed the stewardess through the curtained divider, past the galley and into first class.

A stout steward straightened from his distribution of glasses sweating from the ice water within, his loafers gleaming like swooping bangs.

“From 43?”

The stewardess nodded and the rigidity in the other attendant ebbed. A smile bloomed on his lips, but the welcome failed to reach his eyes or his tone.

“This way, sir.” He pivoted and started down the cabin to where a leather chair gaped.

“Enjoy your flight,” said the stewardess.

She leaned into the bulkhead, allowing him room to pass. A wail from the economy class punctured the curtain and made them both wince.

“I’d bet they’d let you say,” said Grant.

The stewardess chuckled. “Not this time.”

“Good luck then,” said Grant, “and thanks.”

“You’re welcome.” She grinned and then a deep inhale strained the buttons of her blouse. Turning on a thick heel, she stormed through the curtain and disappeared behind its folds.

The plane’s intercom crackle and another steward’s greeting flooded the sterilized air, encouraging everyone to find their seats.

Grant hurried to the hovering steward and plopped into the leather. The cushions squished beneath him, offering a soft embrace. Before he indulged, Grant tilted forward and stuffed his backpack at his feet. When he shifted back into his chair, the steward’s painted grin spread.

“Can I get you anything to drink?”

“Water would be great.”

“And you, miss?”

Grant followed the steward’s gaze to the window seat’s occupant and his heart seized. Flashes of photographs, internet video, commercials, award ceremonies, album covers and concert advertisements inundated his mind in a sudden deluge. Each provided a crystal rendition of Adrina Rinadli’s patented sunny-blond curls, smoky eyes and baritone to soprano range now hidden beneath the floppy rim of a beige sunhat, the wrist-thick braid draped over her shoulder and the faintest hint of make-up on her oval features.

She looked up from the magazine held open in her hands and gave the steward a small smile. “No, but thank you.”

“I’ll be right back with the water then.”

Grant swiveled around and watched the steward head toward the front galley.

“Thanks,” he whispered.

His heart thumped, creating a staccato with the steward’s stride. Falling back into his chair, he latched his belt and placed his hands on his knees. Out of the corner of his eye he spied Adriana flipping another glossy page.

He wet his throat with a hard swallow. “Are you—”

She set the magazine onto the lap of her pale brown slacks but kept her eyes locked on the magazine’s image of green canyons and an idyllic sky. “On vacation.”

“Right,” said Grant.

He glanced at the plane’s interior, the business men and women around them, and the steward delivering a final soda to the neighboring row. No one fit the look of an entourage or the typical horde of protectors in the background of all the tabloid photographs.

“I guess sometimes you just need to get away from everything for a bit.”

“Sometimes.” A sly grin curved Adriana’s lips and Grant felt a flush race over his skin.

An echo from 43A and C poked through the dividing curtain and Grant slouched into the leather. “I hope you have a relaxing time.”

“Me too.”

She returned to her magazine and Grant fetched his battered paperback from his jacket’s inside pocket. As he sought the chapter where he’d left off the text began to resolve out of a blurry swirl. Whole words solidified by the time the steward reappeared. He offered a glass of water, its base wrapped by damp napkin.

“Everything all right?”

“I think so,” said Grant, cupping the drink and holding his place with a finger between the book’s pages.

Holding his breath, he snuck a glance at Adriana when the steward cocked an inquisitive brow.

“Fine,” she whispered.

“Excellent.” The steward caught his balance on the chair’s headrest when the plane surged backwards. “I’ll check on you again once we’re airborne.”

“All right,” said Adriana.

With a nod, the steward departed.

Tucking the magazine into the pouch before her knees, Adriana then doused the overhead light with a long stretch of her arm. She smashed a pillow against the bulkhead and squirreled onto the cushion.

“Sweet dreams,” said Grant.

With another flush-inducing grin, she tipped the brim of her hat down, hiding the top half of her profile.

Grant returned to his book, hoping the lines might again steady. He’d found his place when a finger tapped his shoulder. Swiveling around, he came nose to nose with a middle-aged businessman with an unbutton collar and five o’clock shadow.

“Sorry,” he whispered, “but is that who I think it is?”

He waggled a finger toward Adriana but Grant never shifted his gaze. Instead, he smirked.

“I wish I was that lucky.”

The businessman grunted. “Don’t we all?”

He slid back while the plane angled upwards.

Turning back around, Grant glugged the water and set the empty glass firmly on the armrest between them. He popped his ears, and gave up on his paperback as the red-eye’s timing hit him full force. Clicking off the overhead light, he folded his arms across his chest, closed his eyes, he tried to avoid thoughts on the woman slumbering at his side.

“Thanks for that,” whispered Adriana.

“Anytime,” said Grant.

Her pleased hum sent his heart racing but he settled into the calm behind his lids, content to see what other destinations fate had in store.

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