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Over the Top Secret - Chapter 3
AKA Recycled Air Farts
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Start at the beginning (Prologue - AKA Mission Report)
Read the previous chapter (Chapter 2 - AKA Wakey Wakey, Scared and Shakey)
Read the next chapter (Chapter 3.5 - AKA Trench Coat Tussle)
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“Fasten your seat belts, please. We’ll be taking off in just a few moments.”
I do as she says, cinching the germ-riddled airplane seatbelt another half-centimeter closer to my abdomen. That’s as far as it’ll go against all my layers of inappropriate winter clothing. It’s eighty degrees on the airport tarmac, but I look like a snow bunny with my fluffy outer coat and touchscreen-friendly gloves. Even with all the superfluous apparel, I’m still freezing my ass off and shaking uncontrollably.
Thank goodness there’s no one else in my row. I don’t know if I could handle a five-hour airbus ride squeezed between two strangers and their germy airplane breath. At least I managed to nab the emergency exit row, with glorious extra space for my long legs.
My iPhone buzzes in my pocket (I can’t believe I forgot to put it in airplane mode). It’s a text from Nicole.
Nicole: Hey girlie. Feeling better? Did you make your flight?
Me: Yges, on yhe farmak niw.
Turns out the gloves don’t work as well as advertised.
Nicole: I’m glad. Tell you all @ my call w/Dr. Reeves later. Have a safe flight!
I tap over to the other conversation with my mom, the one with now twenty-five unread messages. I scroll to the most recent ones.
Mom: Are you through security?
Mom: At the gate yet?
Mom: Why aren’t you responding??
Mom: Julie, call me, your father and I had a change of plans.
Mom: Please tell me you got a friend to drive you.
Mom: You know I don’t like you riding on Uber.
Mom: Horror story in the news today about a girl in the Uber.
Mom: Julie! Answer me!
I type a generic response.
Julie: Yes, in tge flught now. Sew yoo sppn.
Half a second after the text goes through, my phone buzzes with a call from mom. I better answer it this time.
“Julie!” My name sounds like a breath of relief when she says it, followed by her shrill worry voice. “Why hadn’t you responded this whole time? That is not like you at all.”
“Sorry mom, I was—”
“Oh, never mind. Julie, listen.” Her voice is as taut as always. “I hope you won’t be too angry, but you’ll have to ask Nicole to pick you up from the airport when you get here. Your father and I can’t make it because—”
“Nicole won’t be able to pick me up, either. But that’s fine, I’ll just take a taxi.”
“A taxi?” I pull the phone away from my ear with a cringe, my eardrum still vibrating from her screech. “You can’t trust a taxi driver, Julie. You know this!” I roll my eyes.
Why hasn’t the plane taken off yet? There aren’t any other passengers loading in and I already have to pee. “What was it you wanted to tell me, Mom?”
“Oh, right.” She takes a loud slurp of something through a straw, then lowers her voice to a conspiratorial whisper. “Your father and I can’t pick you up because we’re going on a cruise to the Bahamas.”
My mouth drops. “Since when do you travel?”
“I wasn’t too excited about the idea at first, but now that we’re on the ship, I have to say,” she hiccups loudly, “these Pina Coladas are delicious.”
“You’re already on the ship? You’re drinking? And you didn’t invite me!” I look to my side with an expression that says, “Can you believe this woman?” but no one is there to share in my moment of disbelief. For a split second, I’m disappointed. Then the germ-riddled airplane AC kicks on, reminding me how grateful I am to not have to breathe my seat-mate’s recycled airplane breath.
“It was a last-minute decision,” she says. My mother never makes last-minute decisions. Or drinks soda, let alone alcohol. I don’t think I’ve ever seen her have fun at all, actually.
I shake my head in disbelief as she continues. “Julie, I haven’t seen your father like this in years. He was so excited when he came home from his last day of work yesterday, he went straight to the computer and booked the cruise!” Behind her, a loud horn rips through the air, followed by a chorus of enthusiastic cheers. Mom shouts over the noise, “He even started dancing with me in the living room, can you believe it?” She giggles. Giggles! “Oh, I hope you’re not mad, dear.”
“I’m not mad, really.” Just shocked out of my mind.
“With you graduating soon and moving on into the world, well, your father and I got to thinking. We don’t want to live the rest of our lives on the couch while you’re out there,” she hiccups again, “taking the world by storm. You’ve inshpired us!” she lisps.
Who is this crazy woman, and what has she done with my mother?
The flight attendant gives me a warning look and motions for me to hang up the phone. But I still have so many questions! I tell her with my eyes. She shakes her head, “no.”
Fine. My interrogation will have to wait.
“Uh, mom, I have to go—”
“Julie? Honey, your father wants to go wave goodbye to the land-folk as we leave the port. Oh, and here he comes with another Pina Colaaadaaaa!” She sings that last part. My face is frozen in a permanent look of bewilderment. “Enjoy having the house to yourself this week! I love you.” She gives me a sloppy kissing sound and hangs up.
I stare at the phone in my hand.
This is so not like my parents. Could they really be so relieved to be kicking me out into the real world that they’ve changed personalities entirely? No, I know. They’ve been suffering this whole time as parents, worried and up-tight about raising a child, and now that I’m an “adult,” they can go back to loving life. And here I was, thinking my parents were the fun-suckers!
I let my head fall onto the germy headrest behind me without hesitation as I close my eyes. How many times can plans change in one day? All these stressful unknowns are driving me crazy. Ugh. Once I’m back home, with the quiet house all to myself, I can make a master list and figure out what the hell is going on in my life. With a well thought out list, everything works out. I nod, more to comfort myself than anything else. Lists have never failed me in the past. In the meantime, I take a deep breath and focus on the few things I do know.
Let’s see here: My parents have been replaced by Pina Colada-loving hippies, and my best friend is moving on up as an essential addition to the real world. At the same time, I still have no idea what I’m good for, and I’m sitting here with a cryptic ailment screwing me up from the inside out.
Oh, and my thesis projects have been destroyed because I broke down and turned to the internet for advice.
Hmm. That wasn’t as reassuring as I’d hoped it would be. At least no one is here to watch me suffer.
My eyelids fly open. An extremely handsome young man with a Tom Cruise vibe is standing in the aisle looking right at me. He chuckles at my shocked expression, his jet-black hair bobbing up and down.
“Excuse me. My seat is right here.” He flashes a brilliant, crooked smile and slides into the aisle seat next to me. I doubt he’s much older than me, maybe twenty-seven or twenty-eight. His smooth, black leather jacket fits his lean, muscular torso perfectly. Black boots extend from the bottom of his tight-fitted jeans. He expertly fastens his seatbelt in one swift motion with the most superbly trimmed fingernails I’ve ever seen. Besides my own, anyway.
He gives me a sideways glance that says, “I know you’re checking me out.” I should probably take advantage of this unusual opportunity to enhance my flirting skills. Right when I open my mouth to say something saucy, a wave of nausea sends my stomach halfway up my throat. I pinch my lips together and turn away, thankful I haven’t puked on anyone. Yet. Looks like the mystery virus taking hold of my body is not letting me function today. I glance around at the rest of the plane.
Why couldn’t he have picked literally anywhere else to sit? The plane is practically empty! Well, except the very front and back rows where a handful of burly men sit.
They’re all wearing matching black trench coats. For some reason, none of them have taken their sunglasses off. One of the men is much taller than the rest, and he appears to have a hunched back. His blond hair is gelled back into a ponytail that reaches a centimeter away from the ceiling above him. He and his bald buddy are flirting with the flight attendant, who’s flirting back. The other trench coat guys in the back of the plane are flipping through the in-flight magazine, stealing glances here and there every now and then.
What’s with the weird outfits and suspicious behavior? And why isn’t anyone else boarding this plane? Surely a bunch of Californian college students would trade Laguna Beach and Disneyland for a week of humidity and bug bites? Ha. Not even if the Disney World Mickey Mouse were to personally lube ‘em up with sunblock.
Probably there’s a trench coat convention in Orlando. Duh.
Hot Guy watches me, no doubt curious about my eclectic ensemble and finicky movements. He asks, “Planning to do anything fun in Florida?”
You mean besides having an existential crisis? I blink the running sweat out of my eyes. As I stare at him, I wonder if he can tell that I’m struggling to respond without throwing up. I lick my cracked lips before answering, “Spring Break. Home.”
Am I smooth or what?
He lets out a short laugh-y breath through his nose. “Nice. You going to wear that getup to the beach?” We both look at my outermost layer of fluff, dark pools of sticky cold sweat already forming under my armpits.
I force a laugh, the sound of a heaving dog. “Don’t feel too well.” I bite my tongue. The less talking, the better. He smirks, clearly entertained.
The plane lurches forward, heading toward the runway. I take deliberate, short breaths. In through my nose, out through my mouth. With each breath, the plane gains speed. I glance out the window and immediately regret it. The sight of the black tarmac rolling by mixed with the fluorescent lights and the roaring, shaky plane sends my vision spinning. We’re about to lift off. I clamp my eyes closed.
My head throbs and my eyelids ache from shutting them so tight, but I don’t dare move until the plane reaches the electronics-approved altitude. I can feel Hot Guy staring at me, probably hoping I don’t puke on his chiseled chest. The plane roars as we speed down the runway. Recycled air intoxicates my head. I focus on willing my body not to combust. Deep breath…
The plane surges into the sky. My knuckles are white from giving the armrest a death grip.
“Ladies and gentlemen, you may now use the approved electronics listed in the back of our in-flight magazine,” says the flight attendant. The middle-aged white woman is angling her body toward the trench coat men in a totally desperate position that leaves as much of her ashy skin revealed as possible. She ends the message with a giggle, her artificially-wound red curls bobbing up and down as she does so. She notices me staring and purses her purple-pigment covered lips at me with a look that says, “You better not be a problem, ya hear me?” Then she gets back to flirting.
I let out my deep breath through clenched teeth. Slowly, my shoulders release their hold on my ears. Now all that’s left is the ride there and the landing, I tell myself.
My eyes are still closed when I hear, “You can let go now,” from my right.
I peek a glance at him. Hot Guy is still watching me, a smile tugging at the corner of his lips. “Right,” I say.
My claw-like fingers gradually return to their human shape as I let go of the armrest and shove my hands into my lap.
I look like an idiot.
I feel like hell.
Out the window, tiny cars and houses fade away as we rise above the clouds.
A few minutes pass. The cabin pressure stabilizes. It begins to feel like my head might not explode, just yet.
Hot Guy points out the window. “Check out the mountains.” I turn to see brown peaks poking through a blanket of fluffy white clouds. It’s quite pretty.
I sense movement behind me. I turn back to see Hot Guy reaching for something beneath his seat. He sees me noticing him.
Slyly, Hot Guy places a mystery object in his pocket. He gives me a tight-lipped smile, then tilts his head at something at the front of the plane. I follow his eye line. The hulking blond man, whose head is almost pressing into the roof above him, is staring intensely back at Hot Guy. The blond man turns to his bald friend and whispers something in his ear. Together they glance over their shoulders once more at Hot Guy, then return to flirting with the flight attendant.
Is it me, or did Hot Guy just grip the mystery object in his pocket tighter?
My entire body floods with heat. The zipper on my outer layer won’t budge, trapping me in an oven. Crap. I yank at the tiny metal handle again and it breaks off. Shit! I’m going to die in this fluffy coffin! I wince at the thought of what needs to happen next: Me, splashing some cold, reprocessed plane water on my face. Gulp.
You gotta do what you gotta do.
“’Scuse me,” I mutter, struggling to sidestep my thick torso past Hot Guy. He reaches his hand out, stopping me.
“I wouldn’t do that if I were you,” he says.
“What, go to the bathroom?” I ask. He glances at the front of the plane, his features hardened. “There’s no one in there,” I whine, motioning to the green restroom sign near the bathroom, a mere fifteen or so rows away, indicating it’s open for use.
Hot Guy doesn’t move his hand.
“I have to go.” I push past him, waddling my way into the aisle. His eyes bore into the back of my head as I walk to the front of the plane. Weird.
Just a row or two from the bathroom entrance, the trench coat guys sit totally enthralled by the flight attendant, who is twirling her ringlets around her pointer finger and batting her false lashes as if there’s acid in her eye. She’s leaning against the bathroom door in the hallway, giggling furiously, showing off her low-cut purple uniform to Blondie and his bald friend. They quiet down as I approach.
Now that I’m closer to them, it’s much clearer how enormous Blondie really is. He’s like a rugged, beat-up version of Fabio, but on steroids. His muscles threaten to burst through his black trench coat, his face covered in scars.
Through his totally unnecessary shades, I can make out his beady, dark eyes staring me down. He grimaces, revealing rotting teeth in pressing need of some flossing. The intensity of his gaze sends all the liquid to the forefront of my bladder.
I gotta go. Now.
In a flurry of waddled motion, I yank at the bathroom door that the flight attendant is leaning on. She dramatically “trips” into Blondie’s lap. He grunts, then gives her a tight-mouthed grin, causing her to burst into another fit of giggles, the shrill of which makes me wince.
I shoot her a look that says, “You’re welcome,” and tug the bathroom door closed in a jerky motion. In a matter of two seconds, I lock the door behind me, rip off my outer jacket, and throw some cold sink water on my face.
Surprisingly, it helps a lot. I can almost hear the water sizzling against my burning forehead, and now I don’t even have to pee anymore. Wait a minute. I whirl around, searching my pants all over for a pee stain, and thanking my former self for packing so many extra pairs of underwear.
Huh. None. Guess I was imagining that I had to go.
I dry off with some tissues. The cheap, thin material sticks to my face. As I pick off the fluffy white remnants, I notice my hands are shaking. Like Jell-O in an earthquake. I shove them between my legs and clamp them together with my thighs.
What the heck is wrong with me? I’ve ridden in planes before and I’ve dealt with a lot of Vasovagal episodes in my life, so what’s with all the sudden nausea and twitching and seeing things that aren’t there? And the imaginary needing to pee? I gulp down the frightful suspicion that it all stems from that damn career quiz and come up with a more realistic suggestion instead. Perhaps the giant stress ball in my stomach has finally exploded after all these years. That’s much more likely.
While using the restroom once for good measure (after all, I’m already in here and I don’t trust the phantom pee urges), sounds of shouting and grunting seep into the tiny room from under the door. It sounds like someone is struggling in the cabin.
Ain’t no way I’m gonna be stuck on the toilet if something crazy goes down on this plane.
I yank my jeans up and hold my breath while the airplane toilet sucks all the air out of the room. Then I use the rest of the soap and dry my semi-shaky hands on my jeans. After a moment of fumbling with the door lock, it swings open, and I step into the aisle.
It’s as if time has frozen. Baldie is crouched in his chair, aiming something toward the back of the plane. Blondie stands with his back to me, his large body blocking the aisle and most of my view.
From what I can see, it looks like the other trench coat men have left their seats. Everyone is looking in the general direction of the emergency exit row. My row. They’re all tense.
I feel like my presence paused some kind of action-packed movie.
The flight attendant rounds the corner of the small pantry. I jump at the sight of her, and she jumps at my jump, dropping mini pretzel packages all over the floor. I help her pick them up, paying no attention to her pissed off glances, and when I turn back to the cabin everyone is sitting in their seats, entirely back to normal.
Have I imagined this now, too? Jesus, I need to get home.
I can’t shake the feeling that everyone is eying me suspiciously as I make my way back to my seat. I squeeze past Hot Guy and plop down next to him. A moment passes. He, too, watches me from the corner of his eye.
Ignoring the stares, I check my watch. Only seven minutes have gone by. Great. Another four and a half hours left. My skin prickles in the quiet moments that follow as my thoughts become obsessed with the weirdness of this plane. Have I found myself in the middle of some kind of airborne drug war? I wondered why not many people boarded this plane. Oh my god, what if I’ve accidentally boarded some drug cartel jet and—
Oh, get a grip, I scold myself.
I jiggle my leg nervously. Look out the window again. A sea of clouds and heavenly sunlight look back at me, almost mockingly. I reach over and shut the shade, suddenly very upset by all this discomfort.
It occurs to me that maybe I’m dying. My heart stops at the thought. Then I remember all the research I have to do over break. I will my body to keep it together, at least for now.
Hot Guy’s stare bores into my side as he watches my every move. I turn to him, fueled by an unexpected burst of anger. “What is your problem?”
He raises his eyebrows. Even I’m shocked by this outburst.
“Stop staring at me,” I hiss. “I’m not that interesting,” I add.
He chuckles. “Quite the contrary,” he says, then points to his cheek. “You have tissue on your face, by the way.”
Damn it. I wipe my face angrily. Now I’m hot again. I struggle to pull my next layer off.
“Would you like some help?” he says.
I finally get the jacket off and shove it under the seat in front of me, rolling my eyes at him. “No, thanks.” Out of nowhere, my nausea is replaced with an intense need for water. My mouth is incredibly dry, my tongue stuck to the roof of my mouth. I search my purse for a water bottle.
Oh yeah, security made me throw it away.
Silently, I curse T.S.A.
Hot Guy pulls an ice-cold water bottle from the same mysterious place under his seat. He knows I’m eying it.
“Thirsty?” He untwists the cap. He inches the bottle to his lips. Before he can get his mouth on it, I snatch it from his hands and gulp the entire thing down. He stares, half amused and half appalled. The hell is wrong with me?
With a full stomach of chilled water, my body simmers down again. I sit back in my chair and let out a deep, satisfied sigh.
He looks at me, incredulous.
“Sorry. I don’t know where that came from. I just…” I search my brain for a logical reason, but none can be found. Shrugging, I finish my sentence. “…couldn’t control myself.”
“I’d say.” The corner of his mouth raises in a handsome, although crooked, grin. Then he runs his hand through his black hair and winks at me.
“Look, I’m not in the mood for this, okay?” Maybe if I get real with him, he’ll leave me alone. “Something weird is going on here, and I’m not exactly sure what it’s doing to me.”
“It’s called attraction.” He leans back in his chair, nonchalantly.
Who does this guy think he is? “Actually, I think it’s called repulsion.” Take that.
“Body language doesn’t lie.” He looks me up and down with a grin. Everything about me is turned toward him. I’m leaning dangerously close to his personal bubble.
Oh, snap. It looks like Hot Guy’s right. I let out a “Hmph” and unbuckle my seat belt in a huff.
“Where are you going?” he asks.
I stand, defiantly. “To one of the hundred other empty rows.” I gesture with my hand to the rest of the plane. The trench coat guys turn toward us, alerted by my raised voice. Hot Guy grabs my jacket.
“Don’t do that,” he says. “Just sit down, Julie.”
“Excuse me, but I—”
Did he just say my name? I don’t remember telling him my name. Before I can speak, Hot Guy pulls me back into my seat.
He speaks in a low voice. “Julie, you need to stay put.”
I gasp. He said it again! “What’s going on here?”
“It’s safer if you just remain here,” Hot Guy says. “I’ll let you know when the situation is diffused. Until then, stay out of the way.”
He glances back to the front of the plane. Blondie isn’t in his seat anymore. The flight attendant is heading our way. With Hot Guy leaning toward me, I can see the handle of a gun poking out from his inside jacket pocket. I suck in a shaky breath, eyes bulging from their sockets. My whole body shivers.
“You should buckle up. This might get ugly,” he says.
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