First Flights

“ . . . 629, now boarding. Flight 629 to Buffalo, now boarding. All travelers report to Gate . . .”

Suppressing a weary groan of relief, Jen stood and stretched, feeling her spine shift and settle, vertebrae by vertebrae. She heaved the carry-on over her left shoulder and offered an encouraging smile to the nine-year old boy blearily gazing up at her.

“Now?” Tod was a slender, waif-like child. His hair was plastered by sweat and what looked like chocolate to one side of his head, and stuck out in bizarre clumps on the other.

“Yep,” Jen answered and held her hand out to him. She adored her little brother, who was quiet and bookish, and yet usually vibrated with an intense awareness of the world around him.

Tod’s sensitivity to light and sound had bothered her parents — especially Papa who had thought Tod weak — but Jen knew the boy’s inner strength.

She had more than once come across her little brother defending a smaller child from the schoolyard bully, with no fear for his own safety.

She had seen him wade in between fighting dogs to separate them without blinking an eye or getting bit.

She had held her breath in fear as Tod scampered after squirrels to the topmost branches that swayed alarmingly so he could find their hidden nests.

Lord only knew what the boy got up to when she wasn’t around. With Mama and Papa gone now, Jen made sure she was around.

Tod scrambled to his feet and clutched his backpack in front of him.

“Don’t worry,” Jen said softly and held out her hand to him. “The flight will be fine.”

Tod’s fear of flying, given his courage in so many other situations, puzzled Jen. And unfortunately, flying across the country a few days before Christmas was not helping the experience.

Jen had flown a few times before, but had never experienced anything like this trip. Scheduled for a six a.m. flight to Chicago, and then transferring to a flight to Buffalo, should have allowed enough time for any re-routing necessary to accommodate the winter weather patterns.

The flight from Sea-Tac had been delayed by nearly twelve hours, and the connecting flight to Buffalo was long gone and no more were scheduled out of Chicago until the following day.

Jen’s limited funds didn’t permit a hotel room, and the airline refused to pay for one. Jen had slid down the wall of the lobby in weary resignation after two hours of arguing with ever scarcer-to-find staff, and breathed deeply though the wails that threatened to burst out of her.

Tod had tentatively stroked her hair. “Jen?” There wasa the faintest quaver in Tod’s voice and Jen’s breath caught in her throat. She summoned her courage and smiled up at him.

“Guess what!” Jen said, as brightly as she could manage, pushing back up the wall and tossing her unraveling braids behind her shoulders. Tod looked back at her solemnly.

“How would you like candy and soda for dinner tonight? And to camp out on the chairs of your choice?” Tod looked around at other stranded passengers settling in for the night, and back at Jen, his eyes wide.

“C’mon!” And so she and Tod had made a feast of Snickers and 7-Up, Fritos and fruit rolls.

And then she taught Tod how to use a wet paper towel to scrub his teeth clean. He had laughed and splashed water at her, and avoided the soap for his hands with a vehement revulsion – seeming for a minute like any other normal nine-year old kid teasing his beloved older sister.

Tod had curled up in the chair next to her and put his head in her lap, asleep in minutes. Jen sat still and alert.

She had found a set of chairs in a corner where she could see anyone who might get too close to them. The lights outside cut a wide swath through the falling snow, which had thankfully settled down somewhat from the earlier more blizzard-like conditions. Hopefully, the ticketing agents tomorrow could get them re-routed rapidly.

The night passed slowly, Jen occasionally drifting off despite her best efforts to stay awake. No one came near them, for which she was grateful. When uniformed staff started circulating, Jen gently shook Tod awake and they started the laborious process of being re-ticketed.

Despite having spent the night in the terminal, they were not the first ones in line. And the people seemed to come in two flavors – weary and resigned, or surly. Little beacons of hope in a smile could be found if one looked closely and long enough – and miracle of miracles, there was an occasional laugh. But mostly people leaned again luggage or each other or even sat on the ground, slowly shuffling ahead a pace or two.

And there were so many lines, looping back in on each other and winding snakelike through the crowded complex. Jen struggled to trace the tail of the line back to the proper counter, and after getting in the wrong line a couple of times was finally directed to the correct line.

The ticketing agent had rapidly booked them on three separate flights, just to make sure if they missed one they had two more options. The woman had smiled kindly at Jen and offered Tod a lollipop, wishing them Happy Holidays as she handed Jen the three different sets of tickets.

“Now mind,” she said, “I don’t think you’ll make the first one unless they’re delayed. But hurry. Go to the left and through those doors to . . .”

Jen had thanked the woman profusely, clutching the tickets in one hand and Tod with her other. “Let’s go, boy,” Jen set off at a rapid pace, dragging the tired boy protesting behind her.

As expected, they were too late for the first flight. The second flight, another miracle, was on-time. It was a little puddle-jumper, with a single row of seats along the right side, and a row of two seats along the left, carrying about twenty passengers, Jen decided. Tod was in the seat in front of her, and he looked back at her anxiously.

“It’s okay,” she said.

Rummaging in her coat pocket, she found the chewable motion sickness tab and handed it to Tod.

“This will help,” she said. With any luck, he would sleep through most of the flight, given how tired he was. And sure enough, by the time they cleared for take-off, Tod’s head was lolling against the seat, gentle snores barely audible above the whine of the engines.

Jen had closed her eyes once there was nothing to see but Lake Michigan below. The flight was supposed to be easy and smooth, with Uncle Jimmy waiting at the other end to take them to their new home.

The weariness was tugging her gently into a doze, and she drifted uneasily feeling somewhat smothered in a cotton-filled world of muted sounds and numb body. She was afraid to sleep.

Suddenly, there was a muffled bang and the plane dropped and then straightened out. Jen gagged on the bile that rose up her throat, and peered anxiously at her brother.

Amazingly, Tod had slept through the noise and drop.

The plane was now banking and the Captain’s voice came over the PA system, calm and reassuring. Slight engine trouble, nothing to worry about, everyone was safe, however they were heading back to O’Hare. Folks would be helped to transfer to other flights.

Jen thought about screaming in frustration, and then she considered crying in despair, and then she decided she knew why most adults seemed to drink or smoke or do both. She wondered what Tod would say when they landed.

She didn’t have long to wait. As they plane’s landing gears were engaged, Tod roused and looked over the back of the seat at Jen with a smile.

“Are we there?” he bounced in excitement and Jen opened and shut her her mouth.

Tod peered out the window, and then a wail of despair rose from his seat.

“Nooo!” he cried. “We’re back where we started!”

Jen grimaced and reached a hand over the seat to ruffle his sticky hair.

“It’s better to be here than floating in ice-cold water,” she said, trying for a light-hearted tone.

The plane landed and taxied to a stop. Folks hastily grabbed their carry-on luggage and prepared to face the daunting task of finding yet another flight to home or work or wherever they were headed.

Jen took tight hold of her frayed patience and Tod’s small hand, and wondered if they ever would make it home. And if they did, what it would be like?

With Tod in tow, she stepped off the plane and into the terminal to start again.