James was finally alone with his wife. After two days spent flying with his dementing father beside him counting stewards and babies and everything yellow, James and Helen were at last on a flight out of the Maine. As the engines started, he was thinking about the few nights left, the two flights, the hour or day or week it would take to tell Helen he was packing the kids’ clothes, the purple vase, the books, moving out. So when the plane he and Helen were on lost power on the runway and skidded across a field right into a snow bank, James knew it was time to be honest, fair, tell her, for god’s sake, tell her. But they were stranded in public space: The regional hotels were full, and kids, everyone else’s kids, circled every pillar on the airport floor, and every time they were alone, she began crying.
James kept trying to book them on new routes, new connections, but with little success, and he and Helen had gone from gate to gate only to have the flight cancelled, crews yanked to cover major connections, or planes grounded from ice or wind or snow drifting across runways. At one point, he had sat her down, started to tell her he was leaving, but the announcements had come blaring on, urging them to report all abandoned luggage.
Finally James had got them confirmed on a route through Atlanta, and they were alone, an empty seat between them, but just as the doors were finally closing, the marathon man came racing in, landing in the seat between them, his gear barely fitting into the overhead, his shorts stained, with coffee, he said, his body drenched in sweat. The marathon man had flown back immediately after a race, some kind of desert Iditarod with dogs, he said. He was lucky to make this flight, he kept saying, talking first to himself, then to Helen. He liked the dogs, German shepherds in particular. Didn’t she?
The row was narrow, and the man’s shoulders and thighs cut into the space between seats. James felt pressed up against the window, but Helen, legs pressed against the marathon man’s bare thighs, just kept giggling. You’re stupid about men, he told her after the plane landed in Atlanta, after they ran out of the door, after the sauntering marathon man turned left, and after they turned right, as they raced to get to the airport train.
He has two kids, she said. Just like us, Like hell, he said.
When Helen called him a bastard, James stopped, grabbed her wrist and told her, and suddenly they were screaming at each other in the middle of the long escalator to the airport transport train, with families trying to hurry past them with backpacks, rolling bags, harnesses on the boys. Then James told Helen he was damned if he was going to stay one more night with her in that house, she could raise her damn kids alone, and he just turned and started running up the escalator to catch the terminal train. He heard her starting out behind him, then yelling at him to stop―“the strap broke . . . James!”―and he turned just at the landing and saw her tote bag falling onto the steps, gifts for the girls everywhere, but just then the train arrived and just before the doors closed he turned suddenly and sprang aboard, heading for the next terminal for a flight they were barely going to make in the first place. He hated himself for running away from her. But James was now inside the train and god knows where Helen was, really, and it was better now simply to go on to the gate.
When the train stopped, James lit out alone with his backpack and carry-on, running the length of the terminal, yet by the time he reached the gate, the plane had left, and the gate, all the gates, the counters, the seats, were quiet and empty. This was the midnight flight. The monitors were all shut down in this end of the terminal. He tried to check the gate on his phone, but couldn’t get an internet connection. Looking back down the length of the terminal hallway. He saw only a single cart heading back toward the trains, loaded with what looked like dead-headed mops and brooms. He was alone, standing at the counter, panting hard, in a full blown panic attack hoping Helen would reappear, when suddenly, he thought he saw her and he relaxed, his heart stopping, and at the same time a hard blinding pain slammed into one side of his head. He took one slow deep breath, thinking, oh my god, this is a stroke, wondered if he had ever prayed before and if it would work, then began counting, like sheep, he thought, the abandoned coffee cups he could see lined up along the window wall off to the side of the counter, just trying to calm down.
When he could breathe again, James looked around to see if Helen really had reappeared at the end of the hallway, but he didn’t see a soul. He kicked his bag to the side, raised his hands carefully above his head―which worked―then raised one eyebrow, then the other, feeling at his face for one-sided slack. Then suddenly the pain came back blindingly worse. Barely keeping his eyes open, he began searching through his pockets, then his backpack, for aspirin, fish oil, beta blockers, anything to make the sudden pain in his head go away, to prevent the stroke he was sure was coming. He was scared, and he kept dropping pills. Finally, he found two small ones, white, round, the beta blockers, and put them in his mouth, chewing fast. He didn’t know if chewing them would work, but it was the only thing he could even think of to do. Then he heard Helen call out just behind him, and turned — told her to go to hell. She told him it was his fault they’d missed the plane and why hadn’t he waited? and yanked at the tote bag, which fell open again, toys spinning out. The last thing James saw as he passed out was a plush toy spider landing on the fake wood of the gate counter. It suddenly ballooned large, teeth popping out of its tiny purple fur face. Then he was awake, on his back on something hard (the floor?), and unable to move. He was there for what felt like a very long time, alone, then he felt the pressure of her body leaning against him, her hand on his face, his right shoulder, his arm. When he could finally open his eyes, Helen was somehow hovering directly above him, white-haired and blurry.
I’m going to die, he told her. So am I, she said.
He could taste the smell of her hands, a mix of dust and human heat and — he recognized it now― sanitizer. Her lips moved, but the words kept getting stuck between her teeth. Then he closed his eyes and there he suddenly was, on the floorboards of his father’s porch, staring into the faceted eyes of a tarantula. They don’t attack, he told himself, just let it go away, he told himself, and then, lord, the plane above his head that flew solo over the West Texas fields, the stretched white balloon of pesticide drifting past, powdering over the scrub oak and brown Bermuda grass like the first hints of sandstorm ― tumbleweed rolling down the road, twisting like wheels of tricycles across the street, under the cars. The car flooded with the stench of dust and mold and carpet.
Lie still, Helen said to him. I’m calling for help. James―She shook him, reached down his leg. I’m going to search your pockets, she said. I need your wallet.
He saw her tilt toward him, her ID pouch sliding away from her neck on its black cord, like a guillotine falling down toward him. He felt her hand in his pocket, then nothing.
Am I bleeding? he asked.
No, she said. Can you open your eyes? Are we dead? He asked.
No. Oh, James, no. Stay with me. She settled in beside him, raised his head into her lap, her hand on his forehead.
He could smell her, familiar somehow, then he remembered her stretched out beside him.
I can’t feel my legs, he said.
She reached up and down the length of them, tapping them, tapping them like a carpenter, watching his face, then she leaned back against the base of the counter, the spider falling to the floor beside her. He didn’t know the time, but the window was full of glowing birds flying in formation, one leg of the V still crooked and long.
James, Helen whispered, what are you looking at?
There was something James had to tell her about cremation. There’s a spider behind you, he said.
Where the hell were they? He suddenly remembered reaching behind the counter, punching in buttons into some calling system as his head exploded. Then nothing.
What did I touch? he asked her.
Do you remember where you put your keys? James?
Along the wall of windows behind Helen, he could see lights in the night sky. The floor was hard against his back, cold this late at night. Had they turned off the heat?
Don’t cremate me, he said. He was lying in her lap. They had missed that flight. They should go find security together, he thought, maybe find the toilets and wash up. But Helen kept holding his head down, asking him questions, talking to him.
Why didn’t you wait for me? she asked. She repositioned his head again, tapped his cheek.
God, he hated her. I’m moving out, he said loudly, meaning it, then closed his eyes again. He could hear her deep intake of breath in the absolute quiet of the hall.
Open your eyes, James. This is no time to fall asleep. Her voice sounded wet and tired. Then she slapped him hard. Wake up, damn it. My phone’s dead, she said. I can, we don’t have
He tried to understand what she was saying, but the words went up in smoke. They were in an airport terminal, and he was watching her cradle someone’s head as they waited for someone to run down the hallway. They had missed their flight. I’m tired, he said finally, and he started having trouble breathing.
Helen bumped up against him. Wake up, she said. Say something. James?
I think he’s dead, she yelled over him to someone running on the tarmac, through the hayfield, the sound of wheels. He heard that. He tried to open his eyes and couldn’t. Tried to lift his hand.
And suddenly he heard it all, the sirens, wheels, people running. And someone was sticking a needle into his hand, someone was making him breathe, lifting him up into the air, onto a cart, and he and Helen were flying, flying after all, all the way down the terminal, flying, wheels turning, separate from each other, but Helen beside him, running.