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Sad Fiction Holiday

This story contains sensitive content

TW: Grief

Business chokes the air on airplanes. An obsessive need for productivity sings through the air, in the constrained irony that one can do pretty much nothing. Every person onboard is forced into a box of limited production, if one simply did not just give up and watch movies. As a lone-traveling teenager, a thought echoed through my head in the long line of people boarding.

Please don’t let someone weird sit next to me.

Maybe they would take up too much space, and squish me into the corner. Or perhaps their earbuds wouldn’t connect, but they wouldn’t realize and play their music on full volume. Or they would spill their boxed water all over my backpack. 

It was petty, but internally, I knew: I couldn’t afford any other misfortunes, however small, or I felt like I would shatter.

I adhered to my nerves to block out all the other thoughts in my head. How was I supposed to go through an airport Starbucks when my entire world was crashing down? An earbud set in my ear, I listened to nothing but the quiet around me. An AJR song mumbled through the bud, solely to drown out the background noise. 

A large man sat a few rows back. He had been talking unceasingly on the phone since before we had boarded. Across the aisle, a woman typed furiously on her computer, airpods locking distractions away as a small child next to her read a book, feet dangling off the ground. Cool air drifted down the aisle, stagnant. The windows were dark, only the lights on the wingtips lit up and the glowing rows of dots along the runway.

I ran my hand over the seatbelt clasp in my lap. The stewardess would soon come out and give a lightning-fast demonstration no one would remember in the face of an actual emergency, the lights would dim, and the roar of the engines would grow louder.

And I would be alone with my thoughts for the rest of the three and a half hour long flight.

I was seated on the aisle seat, the middle and window seat next to me still vacant. The plane was choked with busy passengers, low murmurs, and distant typing. A tall, lone soul with ruffled red curls and glasses was still trying to stuff his suitcase into the overhead bin. His shoulders hunched in anxiety as a line of people still boarding formed behind him. They peered down the aisle, trying to locate their seat around his increasing frustration.

I looked up, nail half-bitten, seeing a young boy and a woman standing above me. The woman was kind-faced and squat, with beautiful black hair. Her son was tall, and around my age, with an easy smile and dark curls.

He reminded me of my brother. They had the same nose and kind dark eyes, dimples in both cheeks, an easy manner to them both. My heart sank.

I scrunched my knees to the side, clutching my bag to my chest and making myself as small as possible. They awkwardly shuffled past me. The boy sat down next to me. Up close, he was even more reminiscent of my brother. He held the awkward seatbelt in his hand, fussing with it for a second before it clicked.

Nothing. Do I say hello?

I turned away, thoughts drenched in anxiety mingling through my head. Last time I’d gotten lucky and scored a row by myself. That was before. When I was hopeful, full of excitement to visit my friend for Christmas break a whole three states away. A week ago felt like forever. When I was younger and innocent and petty. Before my heart had been aged by grief.

There it was again. That tide, pulling at me to carry me away. It was always there, but sometimes it was just easier to forget. And then I remembered, and it sucked me away once again.

The boy was looking at me.

The flight attendant stood at the front of the plane, miming to the head stewardess’ words, displaying a life vest high in the air everyone hoped would not be used. She wore a bow pinned to her lapel as a bit of holiday cheer. My heart sped up in the muted silence, aggressive against my ribs, desperate to escape. I needed to talk to someone. I had barely said anything at all in the span between then and now. But if I did, it would all spill out like a river, and I wouldn’t be able to stop.

Even if I spoke, even if the dam broke and gushed, they still wouldn’t understand. They would stare at me, trying to assess if I was okay, hoping to find something different than the last time they found I was not. They wouldn’t understand. So I kept my words and feelings inside of me, as I had for the last two days, drenched in emotion, but suppressed.

Still, the pressure built.

I hunched my shoulders up, playing a song through my earphones and drowning everything out.

The plane pulled out of the terminal, and started towards the runway. I gripped the armrests, and we accelerated. My stomach flipped. The wings extended, lift building underneath them.

Soon enough, we lifted into the sky. I let out an exhale as we climbed steadily, and after a handful of minutes and seven songs, leveled out.

The boy was watching me. Clicking from three rows back, typing all around me echoed like footsteps in my head, loud. The mother said something to him hurriedly to my left, in a fast and pretty language. Spanish? The one year I had taken my freshman year of highschool failed me.

The sounds were overwhelming, threatening to overtake me.

“What’s your name?” The words fell out of my mouth, before I could register saying them.

He stared at me, frowning. Slowly he shook his head.

“What’s your name?” I asked again, slower this time, and unstringing my words from the jumbled mess I had initially blurted. He frowned at me, face trying to say something.

No inglés,” he said. “Lo siento.”

“Oh. I’m sorry.” Doubt nipped at me. Well this is awkward.

He was still watching me, as if he wanted to conversate, but wasn’t sure how. An airpod set in his left ear. I wondered for a second if he liked the same music my brother had, or favored a more chill taste like mine.

There it was again. I inhaled slowly to keep the tide at bay, zipping open my bag. I pulled out a notebook full of half written songs, and thumbed it to a random blank page, angling it so he could easily see.

Peering over in keen interest, he frowned slightly, in concentration or curiosity. I sketched a person, and then added a sweatshirt and a low ponytail. Amelia I wrote next to it. I tapped the person, and then myself. He nodded, his eyes brightening just a bit.

He reached out a palm, and I handed him the pencil. Excitement built in my heart, pounding a steady rhythm against my ribs. 

He understood.

Another person, much more well drawn than the first, bloomed in his broad strokes of the pencil. He had dark hair, and a kind smile. Carlos.

The drawing reminded me even more of my brother, with the dark hair and sharp features, but an easy presence. Instantly, the tide overwhelmed again. I sat in silence, waiting.

“¿Estás triste?”

I turned, confusion etched over my features. Sighing, he took the notebook, and then drew a circle. He gave it two eyes and a frown, and then drew a tear coming from the left eye. “Triste,” he repeated.

“Yeah,” I said. My words stuck in my throat, sounding hollow. “I’m… triste.”

I swallowed. Quietly, I tapped my pen on the paper, thinking. “Dondeesta…” my Spanish failed me. I took the pad back. He quickly passed it to me, excited to see what I would draw next.

I circled the drawing of him, and then sketched a plane that looked more like a squished dove, but did the trick. From that I scrawled a grand arrow pointing to a question mark. He thought for a second, and then took the paper carefully.

Slowly, he sketched, and then slid it over to show me. At the end of my arrow now sat a row of stick figures: a tall woman, then the squat woman with remarkable resemblance to his mother. Then him. A couple of smaller figures clung around him. In the very center was a Christmas tree, laden with candles, rich gifts seated underneath. They were smiling.

“¿Tu familia?” I asked.

He smiled, eyes crinkling either in pride or laughter at my pathetic attempt at Spanish. “Si.” He watched me for a second, thinking. “¿Adónde vas?” 

I stared blankly. 

Using the end of the pencil as a pointer, he tapped my drawing of myself, then the arrow I had drawn. “¿Y tu?” he tried again.

I took the paper. My hand shook slightly, but I tucked it in my lap. The tide of grief nipped at my side, and I ignored it, sketching my feelings onto the page. Why I was going home was the thing I was trying not to think about in the first place.

First I drew a squashed square, labeling it with the proper state initials. Then I sketched a family, though mine looked much less well drawn. A man stood with a tall woman. Three kids flanked them, a tall boy who looked vaguely like Carlos by the dad, and a girl on the other side.

With the butt of the pencil, I tapped my drawing of myself, and then the first girl. Watching intently, frowning, Carlos nodded. Then I drew an X over the boy.

Carlos was silent.

“He was in the army,” I said quietly. “He was on a training base. He was supposed to be coming home but there was an accident. He… protected the rest of them. Sacrificed himself.” My hand was too still. “We were so proud of him. Still are. He was going into the military like my dad.”

I didn’t want to draw the horrible scene, so instead I added a uniform to my brother’s X-ed out form. I remembered in a blur, sitting in my friend's house. My phone was dead, and her mother’s was lying on the counter. A single text lit up the screen. I need to speak to Amelia. That was it. In a dark, foreboding feeling, I knew. It was the kind of feeling that comes when someone has to break news, a low sinking in your stomach and a sudden loud thought through your head. I don’t want to hear this. Because maybe if they don’t say it, it won’t be true.

I slowly drew a house behind them, tapping it. “I was staying with a friend.”

I drew two stick figure girls, one with a sweatshirt, the other ballerina-like with a pretty bun. I tapped my drawing of myself, then tapped the first girl. I looked up at him, and all of a sudden, I needed him to understand. The desire hit me stronger than the tide of grief, the desire for this one person who was listening to me to understand.

Though I was talking too quickly, using terrible drawings, I needed him to understand what I was trying to tell him.

He studied my face, unreadable. Then his eyes fell back to my drawing.

My finger fell to his previous drawing of the sad face. Triste. It almost came alive with my touch, the tears weeping down the page and bleeding onto my lap. “So that is why I am…estoy… triste.” My voice was too heavy with emotion to break. My hand closed over my pencil, tight.

Lo lamento…” he said quietly. “I’m… sorry.”

He gently took the paper from me. My heart pounded against my ribs with the throbbing of an ocean, painfully fresh now that I had spoken it into being. I waited, listening to the blur of nothing in my noise-canceling earbud, till he set it down in my lap. 

He showed me his drawing. His stick figure family, but he had made another addition. A man stood in between him and his mother, smiling. He had a kind, weathered face, and shared Carlos’ curly dark hair.

He slashed a broad X over him as well. In quick strokes, he drew a car. Then a truck crunched into the side of it.

What was it he had said? Oh. Right.

Lo lamento,” I said, echoing him. A nugget of Spanish-class vocabulary recalled itself to my remembrance. “Cuento… años?”

Tres.” He pursed his lips, watching only his drawing, and then let out a soft exhale. He reached for simple words I could understand. “It… gets…mas fácil. Easy.” He glanced at me, pity and relation in his eyes, echoing the hollowness carving out my heart. “Not… todo fácil. Pero…but… más fácil.” 

He understood.

The ice in my chest released, a cold, hard crystal as someone finally had listened to me and let me speak. It cracked. The tide built behind my dam seeped out, falling from a roaring tsunami into an easy tide, slowly receding back into the ocean.

Gracias,” I said. “Para… for… letting me talk.”

Gently, he took the notepad from me. The entire two pages were filled with sketches at odd angles, but they mingled together in a way that almost formed a cohesive story. He lifted a hand, angling the pad away from me, smiling softly to himself.

I smiled too, a real smile. It was a sad smile, one still burdened, but a little bit less so. This stranger understood. Someone had listened to me, and they understood. 

My chest tingled.

He understood.

Carlos handed me the notepad, a slight patch of turbulence jostling his arm. He had flipped the page, and in a skillful sketch, redrawn my portrait of my brother. It had shading, form, and me at my brother’s side tucked under his arm. There was a soft glow around him. In the picture, his arm was around me, strong as ever.

And he was smiling.

The seatbelt light blinked on above our head, a soft DING echoing through the long hall of the plane. The drawing was so well drawn, even quickly sketched out, it looked like a picture.

Feliz Navidad, Amelia,” Carlos said quietly.

I touched my fingers to the page, over my brother and I’s forms, over their smiles. In the week ahead, on the Most Wonderful Day of the Year absolutely steeped in sorrow, my family would be broken but together. We were fractured, but the pieces would be there. I held the picture close to my chest. My brother would be there in spirit, in this picture, and the pieces of him that lived on in us. And now, perhaps, I had a bit more strength to face it.

The tide receded, ocean still alive, but a fraction more soothed. “Thank you, Carlos,” I said. “Merry Christmas.”

December 23, 2022 20:16

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2 comments

S N
10:52 Dec 29, 2022

From how the story started, I was unsure of where it would go. Business on planes choking the air was good imagery. The girl's sadness was palpable. But the bond with this stranger who reminds her of her brother. . . It made me sad, made me think of my own family. It is a beautiful depiction of human connection and how sometimes, it's more readily found with strangers. Also, I love the element of drawing because, if I recall correctly, therapist use this as a mechanism at times, especially with children to help them explain and understand t...

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Violet Waters
18:48 Dec 30, 2022

Thank you so much Sasha for such a kind and thorough comment. I'm so glad you enjoyed this story and that it touched you. I mostly thought of drawing because words can be hard to translate even when the two speak the same language, but drawings and emotions are universal. Excellent point about the therapeutic benefits of it. Thank you for reading, and happy writing! Violet

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