Sunday, June 27, 2021

Flight to Lima

Flight to Lima

J.T. Jefferson

        Those incessant screams are enough to make me want a drink, and I’ve been a teetotaler for all of my forty-seven years, Valarie thought while fighting the urge to cover her ears.

        “How childish would that look?” she whispered into the air. A middle-aged Hispanic woman pressing the palms of her hands against her ears as if she were an eight-year-old child blotting out the sounds of an accordion. The infant’s screams reverberated off the Mexico City International Airport’s rafters. Valarie prayed, and said, “God, please don’t let that baby be on my flight to Lima.”

        Valarie had survived her share of mothering. She had no children, and was never married, but being the oldest of five siblings came with parenting responsibilities. Both her parents worked two jobs to provide her and her siblings with a comfortable life. They were raised in Mexico City and attended private schools. Valarie saw the work that went into supporting a family and wanted no part of it.

        Teaching history at a local public high school afforded Valerie opportunities to indulge her passion for archeology. During school holidays and summer recess breaks, she visited ancient Mayan ruins throughout Mexico and Guatemala. All the guides at the ruins were multilingual and usually spoke English to accommodate the majority of the tourists. Valarie enjoyed going into more depth with the guides in Spanish, their shared language.

        This trip to Lima was the first leg in her long dreamed of exploration of Peru and the ancient Inca civilization. She was especially excited about touching the stones of Machu Picchu. All of that awaited her if she could survive the cries of that baby.

        Valarie was grateful that her brother, Guillermo, was a pilot for Aeromexico Airlines. This gave her discounted flight privileges reserved for the families and friends of airline employees. Valarie took full advantage of this benefit, and the stamps of many nations on her passport were proof of that. Being on standby status was the only drawback to discount tickets. Full-fare customers were seated first, and if there was space on the plane, standby passengers were seated by priority-ranked order. Guillermo had worked for Aeromexico for a dozen years, so Valarie was sure she would get an unsold seat.

        “Valarie Hernandez to Gate 52 please,” an airline employee called over the terminal’s P.A. system. The announcement was first spoken in Spanish and immediately repeated in English.

        Valerie smiled as she watched the mother try to comfort her baby by rocking the child in her left arm, while simultaneously struggling to screw the cap on a bottle of formula with her right hand.

        One of the many prices people pay for sex, Valarie thought. She stood, stretched out her slightly plump five-foot-three-inch body, grabbed the handle of her red carryon suitcase, and rolled it over to Gate 52.

        Another perk to being related to an employee of Aeromexico was the empty first-class seats that were allowed to be filled by those with employee discount tickets. Today, for this five-hour-and-forty-six-minute flight from Mexico City to Lima, Valarie was assigned to seat 1A. As soon as she stowed her luggage in the overhead bin, and before she could adjust her seat for maximum comfort, a male flight attendant asked if she would like something to drink. Looking at the eight-ounce bottle of water in her cup holder, Valarie said, “I’m fine for now, thank you.”

        Relieved she was not bumped from this flight due to it being sold to capacity, Valarie began to relax while the remaining passengers boarded the plane and took their seats. She checked out the in-flight entertainment options. To her surprise, many classic movies and television shows were available to watch: One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest starring Jack Nicholson, the original Twilight Zone series hosted by Rod Serling, and Alfred Hitchcock Presents. The mere thought of sitting back and enjoying a movie or two made her hungry. Lunch would be served as soon as the plane reached its cruising altitude, so Valarie took a peek at the menu placed neatly in a gray net attached to the wall in front of her.

        The last group of passengers to board the plane included the woman with the agitated baby who had been screaming in the terminal. Seeing them, Valerie was thankful that the baby was now ravenously sucking on the nipple of a bottle of cream-colored formula. That sight caused Valarie to turn her attention to the lunch menu in her right hand. With the index finger of her left hand, she began scanning the list of meal options. Her long, pointed red fingernail stopped on the only vegan dish being offered, Vegan Enchilada. Valarie thought it sounded delicious.

        Moments after the lighted seatbelt signs were turned off, the flight attendants began going from row to row jotting down the meal choices of passengers seated in first class. The process was a bit cruder in the economy section of the cabin. Two stewardesses pushed heated carts through the aisles and offered each passenger one of two choices: chicken parmesan or spaghetti and steamed vegetables. Back in first class, Valarie ordered the vegan enchilada and a can of cranberry juice.

        The steward who took Valarie’s order also phoned into the cockpit and began writing down whatever he was being told over the phone. Sitting in the front row gave Valerie an idea of what her brother’s work environment must be like. Since the pilots’ door remained locked during flights, there was a two-way hatch alongside the cockpit door that allowed food and drinks to be delivered to the pilots safely. Valarie wondered if there was a bathroom in there as well.

        Thank God for first class, Valarie thought, as she slowly chewed her last fork full of enchilada. She had poured the remaining few sips of cranberry juice from the can into a glass. She swirled the bright red juice in the glass, pretended it was fine wine by giving it a whiff under her nose, and swallowed a gulp to wash down her lunch.

        “Delightful ,” Valarie said so quietly that no one seated nearby heard. At home, lunch was always followed by an hour-long nap, planned or unplanned, so Valarie decided to wait on watching a movie until she awoke.

        Before long, Valarie was jolted awake by the all-too-familiar wailing noises. From somewhere back in the economy section, the infant was at it again. For Valarie, fingernails scraping a chalkboard would have been preferable to that baby’s cries. The passenger sitting next to her in seat 1B appeared to be fast asleep. How could anyone sleep through this noise? Valarie wondered. Perplexed by the absence of movement around her, she unbuckled her seatbelt to stand up and have a look around.

        There was no movement anywhere on the plane. No flight attendants roamed the aisles, no one was standing to stretch their legs, and no one was heading to or from the bathrooms. Valarie noticed that two of the flight attendants were seated in their pull-down seats, and they slumped over each other as though they had passed out from too much alcohol. The baby screamed again, and Valarie headed down her aisle in the direction of the baby’s cries. Valarie was also beginning to realize that people were slumped over in every seat.

        “Hello, wake up! Can anybody hear me? Wake up!” she shouted in a shaky voice.

        Valarie found the baby lying in the aisle near the back of the cabin. The infant’s white face had turned pink from the work of her mighty vocal cords. Yellow vomit coated the white bib, and her pudgy arms reached up reflexively toward her mother. Valarie knelt on the floor and began rubbing the baby’s belly with her right hand and shaking her seated and dangling mother with her left hand. The mom’s body felt cold and clammy. Valarie jerked her left hand away and stared at the mother’s body. The chest did not rise and fall. No breathing sounds escaped from her mouth or nose, and her skin was ashen.

        “Oh, God!” she blurted out. The other passengers seated around the baby’s mother looked similar. “Everybody’s dead!”

        Valarie picked up the now cooing baby and hustled back to the front of the cabin. She held the baby against her with one hand and banged on the cockpit door with the other.

        “Help! Help! There’s been an accident. Everybody’s dead!” she shouted as she hammered away at the door.

        From the right side of her peripheral vision, Valarie saw a piece of paper slide down from the two-way hatch alongside the cockpit door. The paper landed on a small counter littered with similar pieces of paper. Looking closely, Valarie could see that they were meal check-off sheets. The flight’s captain had chosen chicken parmesan, and the co-pilot had the spaghetti and vegetables. Reading the other sheets, Valarie found only one with a different meal choice. Circled in red, for seat 1A, the meal choice was vegan enchilada.

        The realization of their predicament was numbing. Valarie carried the baby over to seat 1A and slowly lowered herself back into the seat. The baby’s huge black pupils stared up at her without blinking. “Can you fly this plane?” she asked the baby. The baby smiled at the gentle sound of Valarie’s voice. Ignorance is truly bliss, she thought .

        Valarie began humming a lullaby to keep the baby soothed as she stood up and placed the baby in the seat. She continued humming when she opened the overhead bin above them to retrieve her cell phone from her carryon bag. The large black smartphone made her smallish hands look tiny. She turned it on by pressing a side button with her right thumb. In a few moments, the phone’s screen came to life. Maybe Guillermo can figure this out, she hoped.

        Using the WhatsApp feature, Valarie sent a message to Guillermo. She communicated with her siblings with the app to avoid getting lost in anyone’s long list of texts or full voicemail boxes. She typed, “HELP!”

        “What’s going on?” Guillermo replied.

        “Flight AM46 to Lima is in trouble,” she responded to him as specifically as possible. She did not trust the app to keep them connected while she was in flight.

        “What do you mean?” he asked.

        “The food was poisoned. I was the only one who ate the vegan dish, and there’s a baby alive as well,” she typed her answer with tears welling up in her eyes. A tear landed on the phone’s screen, and she watched it drip down.

        “Did you say there’s a baby alive? Does that mean everyone’s dead?” he asked.

        Not wanting her brother to think this was a sick joke, she typed, “YES! YES! YES!”

        After a long pause, Guillermo replied, “The Peruvian authorities are aware of a problem. The pilots had not reported in as required. The plane is on autopilot, and will fly beyond Lima and over the Pacific until it runs out of fuel.”

        Valarie wanted to type, I love you, but their connection was lost. She looked away from the phone to the baby now sleeping in seat 1A. “You won’t sleep for long, will you?” she whispered. Valarie walked back to the baby’s mother to get the bottle of formula. Upon returning, she stood at the food counter littered with the slips of meal choices.

        “This time, I’ll choose the spaghetti and vegetables,” she said with a coy grin. Before putting the meal into a knee-high oven, Valarie placed a small portion of vegetables into a blender used for mixing drinks. “That bit will be for the baby.”

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Flight to Lima