In Case Of Emergency
There are two small straps hanging off the inside of the plane door, bright orange with reflective tape on each side. In the event of an emergency, I am to heave the bar from ‘lock’ to ‘unlock’, grab the door by those two pieces of tape and throw it out of the plane as hard as I can. Every time I fly, I have this discussion with the airline crew; on these airborne tin cans there aren’t enough staff, and emergency row passengers are required to assist in an emergency. On big planes, between even bigger cities, I never had this problem. I was usually in first class, and if I couldn’t be my manager ensured I had an exit row seat. It meant my legs were bent at normal angles, rather than folded concertina-style. I would never have dreamed of having to assist the crew in an emergency.
That life feels like another age; there is no first class on the tiny flights I take now, and if there was I could never afford it. Instead, I sit in the emergency exit row, rubbing my knees and forcing my diaphragm to expand and contract in a rhythmic pattern. I stare at the door, with its two fluorescent orange straps. In case of an emergency. Ironic that I loathe flying, after all those years playing a pilot. Am I physically able to assist the crew in an emergency? Of course. Do I have the mental fortitude? Unlikely.
The faux leather seat beside me huffs as a ball of sullen young human flops down into it, oversize headphones in a tangle of black hair screaming silently I don’t want to talk. The ink of her skinny jeans is faded and I can’t help but pull away from the oversize canvas bag she shoves under her seat. She ignores me, until I recoil from her. She fixes me with a stare from dark rimmed eyes, and my tired, tense mind suggests I nod once at her, and return to my self-calming. I do this, but the echo of her stare unnerves me. She’s too young to know who I am, I reassure myself. Her mother might, but by the time this little black cloud was old enough to show an interest in television shows, I was already in decline. I sneak a glance at her. She looks perhaps thirty. Her eyes stare straight ahead, a tear escaping one, leaving a dark trail down her cheek. Her arms look too frail, her hands too spidery to manage the weight of the door in an emergency. If it comes to that, we’ll both be relying on me to save us.
What a terrifying thought, sing the orange tapes, swaying on their anchors as the plane taxis out to the runway.
I spent the best part of my acting career as a pilot in what the glossies called my defining role. I flew my imaginary plane to exotic locales the world over, never telling my fictional wife about the dangers I encountered, or the close scrapes I had getting various other characters out of trouble. Week in, week out, I was away for work, always returning home to describe it as a quiet week, the usual really, so-and-so was a scream though, you should have seen it. My real life was a reflection of my fictional one. My wife saw me off to the set each morning with a kiss and a wave, before retreating back into the house wrapped in her pink dressing gown without any idea of what really happened at work. She didn’t need to know, I told myself, about the long empty hours between my takes, the drinking on set, the women and the drugs. My show was the network’s golden child; its stars were supernovas. What we wanted, we got. Nothing was denied us. We worked hard for years to build our ratings juggernaut; it was ours in the end to crash.
At the last big awards night, we were a glorious implosion. Convinced of our own immortality, we brought our onset behaviour out for everyone to see. Our table still holds the record for the most empty vodka bottles at the end of the night, years later. I was filmed in the toilets with neat lines of cocaine on the edge of the basin. It cost the network a bomb to try and bury that story. They bought the footage, but the word spread quickly and in my industry mud sticks. Tales of our antics appeared in the newspapers and magazines over the course of the week, and I can pinpoint that as the tipping point of the show. Ratings took a dive; and while they recovered somewhat after a concerted effort at community involvement, they began a decline that was never arrested. Within eighteen months we were canned, and I was doing voice-over work.
Nobody wanted me on their screens anymore.
The sad, angry girl beside me would have been six or seven years old when it all happened. Nobody her age would recognise my face; I’ve not been on screen since, and time has not been kind. The treatments that kept my face young and beautiful are a thing of the past. I wear the last twenty years of fiscal piety as wrinkles and age spots.
As the plane lines up for takeoff, the engine powers up and I close my eyes. I heard this sound so often; I would count in my head until it was time to pull back on the control column, launching my imaginary plane into the air. I was always flying home; post-production would drop some uplifting music over the top, make it clear we were out of danger. But not today. Today I am not out of danger. I am not flying home. What little I have left is in suitcases in the cargo hold. I am on my way to the end. The plane leaves the ground and rolls smoothly to one side. My hands grip the imaginary control column in front of me, steering it smoothly into the endless dark sky.
‘I know you.’
The black haired girl has pulled her headphones off, feeling in control enough now to take in her environment. She has a husky voice, as though she’s been shouting non stop for days. Her dark eyes drill into me and for a moment I feel exposed. But I’m a better actor than that.
‘I’m sorry, you must be mistaken.’
‘No I’m not. You’re that guy, Andy.’ I smile politely.
‘I don’t think so.’
‘You’re that guy Andy from Philly. You dated my mother.’
I am not from Philadelphia. And I never dated a woman with children, at least not to my knowledge. None of them ever had children around when I slithered into their homes in the dead of night, and slid out in the pre-dawn grey. I am not proud of those days of delusion.
‘I’m sorry. You’ve definitely mixed me up with someone else. I’m from Los Angeles. I’ve never lived in Philadelphia.’
I can tell she doesn’t believe me. Her eyes are narrow, her lips pursed up. She pulls in a sharp breath.
‘No, it’s definitely you. Your name’s Andy. My mother had your picture all over the house. You came over all the time.’ Ha. For the first time in years I’m being recognised – but as somebody else.
‘My name is Brian. And I’ve been married to my wife for thirty-two years, and we lived in Los Angeles until very recently.’ I decide to be brutally honest. I am on my way to the end, so it makes no difference anymore. ‘I used to be on television, but that was years and years ago. I just have one of those faces. Your Andy and I must have similar features. Time’s probably blurred your memory.”
‘Are you calling me a liar?’ Her voice rises slightly and I glance around the cabin. The last thing I need now is the attention of the cabin crew.
‘Of course not. I just think you’ve made a mistake. I’ve never even been to Philadelphia.’ I decide to try and charm her, defuse the situation. ‘How many years ago was it?’
She stares at me, and her face is so neutral I can’t tell whether she’s buying in. Eventually she speaks.
‘I was seven. So twenty-one years ago.’
‘Twenty-one years ago my show was at its peak. We used to run every Thursday night in prime time. I was always busy filming.’
She’s pushed the headphones completely off her head now, and her body is turned towards me.
‘If I’m mistaken, how come I remember you coming around every week? Bringing me presents?’
‘And why did she tell me last year, just before she died, that you were my father?’
I don’t have answers to her questions. But when I look at her, I wonder for a microsecond what it might be like to be a father.
I try again.
‘It can’t possibly have been me. I’m not the Andy you remember. But I am terribly sorry for your loss.’ Tears spill out of her eyes and I pat her on the shoulder, unsure what else to do. I decide to continue with truth. ‘I am unable to have children of my own. My wife and I decided against adoption, so it’s been just the two of us since we married.’
‘Where’s your wife now?’ She doesn’t hide the bitterness in her voice.
‘She’s in our marital home, in Los Angeles.’ I plough ahead, since I’m on my way to the end anyway. ‘As of last week, she is my ex-wife.’ At this, she softens.
‘I wasn’t the best husband. I spent too much time at work, then too much time looking for work after my show got axed.’ I leave out my infidelities and substance abuse problems. ‘I’m out of money and time. She deserves better, and she found it, so I let her go.’
‘That must’ve been hard.’
I sigh and press my palms against the tops of my thighs, feeling the denim wrinkle against my skin.
‘Losing my mother was the hardest thing I’ve ever endured. She was all I had. I’m still trying to figure out how to reconstruct my life without her,’ she says quietly.
I wonder if anyone will say words like that about me when I’m gone.
‘I feel much the same about my wife.’
She stares at me again for a long moment.
‘Damn, you look so much like him.’ The ache in her voice is tangible.
We chat through the dinner service. I have the chicken, she chooses the vegetarian meal. It’s some kind of chickpea dish. The smell of the different meals all blending together, reminds me of the craft services table on set. I tell her that, along with some other stories about what it was like to work on one of television’s most successful shows. I keep them clean, family friendly stories; the sort of thing I’d be happy for my own daughter to hear, if I had one. She laughs in all the right places. It’s the first time in years I’ve talked about my past without shame derailing the conversation.
I ask her about her life, and she tells me about her mother. How pictures of a guy who looked just like me filled their house. How he, Andy, would come around once a week, every Saturday afternoon, and bring her some wonderful thing; small, but in the hands of a seven-year-old girl. How she would run outside with her handful of new delights and the words of her mother echoing in her ears; stay outside till sundown, sweetheart. You need the fresh air, it’ll help you grow. How she’d come inside early, once, and how what she’d seen had sent her straight back outside again.
‘No kid ought to see that,’ she shudders. She goes on to talk about how it fractured their interactions, how her mother would become a different person when Andy was around.
‘In a good way, though. Like I could see what kind of mother she could be. But then Andy stopped coming, and so did her sweeter temper.’
I ask her how she managed to repair the relationship with her mother, how the two of them were able to become close again before the end.
‘I didn’t. She did. When she told me Andy was my dad, it all made sense. He was out of the picture before she could tell him she was pregnant, but showed up again out of the blue. She didn’t want me let down again, so she didn’t tell me who he was, or him who I was, just in case it didn’t work out. Her instinct was right on the money. All she wanted was to protect me. She did it tough as a single mother, but after Andy there was never a man through our doorway again.’ She shrunk into her sweater, the knit suddenly two sizes too big. ‘I don’t know where he went, and neither did she. I tried to track him down in Philadelphia after she died, but had no luck. I did trace some relatives of his, I think, to Willet’s Hole. It’s about half an hour out of Belmont.’ I nod. I know it well enough. ‘So that’s why I’m on this flight. He’s all the family I have left now, and if he’s not up it, well at least I’m prepared for that and she won’t need to see him let me down again.’ Her face hardens. ‘I can take it.’ She shakes her head slightly, clearing the clouds of the past. ‘What about you? What put you on this plane?’
‘My old man has a cabin out at Jackson’s Creek. I’m headed out there a while, just sit amongst the trees and think.’ I chuckle. ‘No electricity, no running water. Wood fire. Spartan as you get. Bit of a change.’ My eyes returned to the orange straps on the door, their glinting reflective tape. ‘But maybe having nothing will help me find something back.’
‘I think,’ she says slowly, ‘you have more left in you than you believe. I know I used to feel like that – empty, like I wouldn’t be able to carry on. But when you’ve got nothing left, you’ve got nothing left to lose.’
I am still thinking about what she said when the plane begins its descent and we clip our tray tables away. When the wheels hit the ground and the air brakes roar, I say a prayer of thanks I haven’t been needed to assist the crew in an emergency. She chokes back a laugh beside me.
After we collect our bags from the single carousel in the airport, and the keys to our rental cars, she thanks me for listening, and surprises me by wrapping her arms around me. I pat her on the back at first, but I can’t help it and I end up reciprocating her warm hug. On impulse, I snatch a business card from the car rental stand and write my name and phone number on the back of it.
‘If it doesn’t work out, with Andy, and you need an understudy, you can call me,’ I say. ‘I can step in. You know, in an emergency.’
She smiles like the rising sun.
I abandon my original plan to buy ten bottles of vodka on my way out to the cabin. After all, I may need to assist in an emergency. I need to be ready.
On the drive into the woods, my head is full of her and our conversation. The trees slide by in the headlights. When I arrive, I kill the engine and sit in the quiet, watching the fireflies under the leaves. They glow orange in the darkness.
Amanda McLeod is an Australian author of fiction and poetry. Her words can be found in Terse Journal, Ghost Parachute, Elephants Never, along with being a now-regular contributor here at Sick Lit Magazine. McLeod is one of Sick Lit Magazine’s featured writers for the month of May. A Pushcart Prize nominee, she has been long and shortlisted in a number of international competitions, and has won several prizes. She is also the assistant editor at Animal Heart Press where she enjoys helping authors bring their books into the world. When she’s not immersed in words, she’s a keen painter and enjoys quiet places. Connect with her on Twitter @AmandaMWrites