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I sat in the narrow seat of the commercial jet and tried to ignore the man sitting next to me. This was difficult as his body bulged over the armrest forcing me to keep my elbows pulled against my chest so I would not touch him.
The stale smell of cigarette smoke seemed to hang about him like a cloud on a mountain, and sweat dripped from his face in streams. I had already endured three hours of his presence and we still had hours of flight time left before we reached New York.
“I don’t like to fly,” he muttered.
I didn’t reply, hoping he would get the hint.
“I’m not just scared,” he continued. “I don’t like to fly.”
“Well, it’s the only way we can get to Europe these days.”
“I’d take a ship if they moved faster. Planes are fast, but they frighten me.”
Thinking I might shut him up, I replied, “You should be scared. This kind of plane crashes all the time. I’m an engineer and I know this model is the worst.”
A drop of sweat fell from his bulbous nose.
“You know this?” he asked.
“They’re keeping it quiet,” I said getting into the story. “I wouldn’t be on this flight, but my mother-in-law broke her leg and it was the only flight I could get. To tell the truth, I’m really scared.”
He tried to turn in my direction, but was wedged tightly in his seat. “I don’t like this at all,” he wheezed. “God, I wish I had a cigarette.”
”We probably shouldn’t be talking about crashes, but a pilot friend of mine told me it was important to listen for a certain sound–most of the crashes happen after the crew hears something resembling a door slamming.”
“A door slamming? I think I heard something like that a little while ago,” he said tugging at his shirt collar.
Of course you did, stupid! We’re sitting close to the restroom.
“You heard it?” I said. “That’s really bad! I’m worried. I just hope we can land before anything happens.”
“What could happen? You know about these things, what could happen?” His breath came in gasps and he clutched the armrest with a bare-knuckle grip.
“The wings might fall off. It’s happened before. We land in a few hours, though–maybe we’ll be all right.”
He didn’t reply–he was struggling to reach the button to call the flight attendant. His face turned bright red as he tried to undo his seat belt and the wheezing got louder. Maybe I had gone too far.
“Can I help you?” I said.
He made a gurgling noise and slumped over in the seat–his body threatening to break the seat belt that constrained him.
This didn’t look good. I punched my call button and a flight attendant scurried down the aisle to our seats.
“I think he’s fainted,” I said.
She reached over and touched him, but he didn’t respond. I was beginning to notice a fetid odor.
She felt his pulse and then hurried back to the front of the plane.
I knew I smelled an odor.
She returned with the chief flight attendant who felt the man’s pulse and shook her head. “He’s dead,” she whispered to her co-worker. “We can’t let the other passengers find out. We’re five hours from any airport.
“Can’t you move him someplace,” I said. “I can’t sit next to a smelly dead man for an hour.”
“Sir,” the chief flight attendant said, “Keep your voice down. We don’t want a panic.”
“I am panicking,” I said. “Can you cover him or something? Can’t you move me to another seat?
“There are no other seats and we don’t have any blankets left and, besides, you can’t get out.”
She was right. There was no way I was going to crawl over the dead body sitting next to me.
The plane lurched slightly and his body shifted so his head fell onto my shoulder. I tried to shove him back, but I couldn’t move him.
“Sir,” the flight attendant said softly. “If you can just keep quiet and cooperate all this can be fixed when we land. Meanwhile, would you like a complimentary drink or peanuts?”
Bio: Phil Richardson lives and writes in Athens, Ohio. Two of his stories have been nominated for the Pushcart Prize in Fiction. His work has appeared in print journals, in on-line magazines, and in eighteen anthologies.
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