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Ask the passengers, p.12
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       Ask the Passengers, p.12

           A. S. King
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  I close the passenger’s door and I sit in the back.

  About halfway home, he says, “Do you have any idea what your mother is going to say?”

  I stay silent and think about how I can lie my way out of this, because tonight is not the night to make this decision. Not under these terms. Not under interrogation.

  “She’s going to lose her mind.”

  “There’s no way we can keep this between us?” I ask.

  He’s quiet for long enough that I think he might actually agree. Then he says, “Do you know who you’re dealing with?”

  I let that question echo and look out the window into the quiet night. Dad doesn’t have the heater on and I’m freezing, but I’m afraid of what he might say if I ask him to turn it on. I am his prisoner, in the backseat, trapped by child locks. I deserve to be cold and uncomfortable, I guess. I look out my window, and I see a plane high in the sky, its taillight flashing.

  I ask it: Do you know who you’re dealing with?

  I ask myself: Do you know who you’re dealing with?

  Yes. I know who I’m dealing with. I’m dealing with the fire that sends flickering shadows. I’m dealing with the Claireplane on which I’ve been a passenger for seventeen years. I look at Dad and I know he’s a passenger, too. Even Ellis, up in first class. We’re all passengers.

  I ask us: Do you know who you’re dealing with?



  NOT AT FOUR IN THE MORNING. Not with my mother sitting in the kitchen waiting. Not with a fight between her and Dad first when Dad tells her the whole story about where he picked me up. And certainly not with Ellis being woken up on purpose to hear my “news.”

  She says it so smarmily. “Sorry to wake you, but your sister has some important news and I think you need to hear it.”

  I sit at the table and hear her say this upstairs at Ellis’s bedroom door.

  Ellis clomps down the stairs behind Mom and sits in her chair in the kitchen, then flops her head down into her arms and tries to continue to sleep.

  “Well?” Mom says. “We’re ready for you to tell us the big news!”

  “I don’t have any big news.”

  “Your father says you do,” she says.

  “He didn’t even talk to me on the way home.”

  “He knows where he picked you up,” she says. “Why don’t you start there?”

  “I made a mistake. I went to a bar. I got caught. I’m sure it will be fun for you to watch me reap the consequences.” This answer makes Ellis look up. We make eye contact for a millisecond.

  “You think this is fun for me?” Mom asks.

  “No. Of course not. If this was fun, then you’d make sure to wake up the whole family and put me on some sort of mock trial at four in the morning.”

  Just as Mom is about to tear into me for being a smart-ass, Ellis asks, “What the hell is this about?” She yawns. “You went to a bar? Why is that a big deal?”

  “I know, right?” I say. “She takes you out drinking all the time, and you’re a year younger than me.”

  “Yeah,” Ellis says before Mom yells over us both.

  “But I don’t take her to homosexual bars!” she says. The way she says homosexual is… not standard FOTG issue at all.

  “Who calls them that?” I ask.


  “Who what?”

  “Who’s them?”

  I look at her. “I mean who calls bars for gay people homosexual bars?”

  “I think the proper nomenclature is gay club, Mom,” Ellis says.

  “Did you know about this?” Mom asks Ellis.

  “She didn’t know about anything,” I say. “Only me, Kristina and Justin knew. And maybe a few of their friends.” I figure invoking Kristina might help me.

  But it’s as if she didn’t hear it.

  “So do you want to tell your family why you were at a gay club tonight, Astrid? And do you want to tell us how long you’ve been lying to us about where you are on Saturday nights? Because don’t think I won’t call Dana in the morning.”

  “Who’s Dana?” Ellis asks as she shuffles across the kitchen and gets herself a glass of juice from the fridge.

  “Jeff’s mom,” I say.

  “Well?” Mom presses.

  When Ellis gets back to the table, I sit forward. “Look. The last few weekends we went to this gay club in town. We did it because we heard we could get served there. No one cards you at the door. And like most normal high school kids who live in”—I look right at Mom when I say this—“small-town America, we are bored out of our minds sitting around this stupid little town and doing nothing. It’s our senior year. We figured we could find a way to have some fun. So yes. We went out. We had fun. We danced. I had one drink.”

  Ellis cracks up.

  “It’s not funny,” Mom says. Then she looks into Ellis’s eyes. “You knew about this, didn’t you?”

  “She didn’t know. No one knew,” I say. “Anyway, if you’re expecting some big news about how I’m some lesbian or whatever because I got busted at a gay club, then you’re fresh out of luck.”

  I look over and see Frank S. sitting in the corner. He’s not smiling.

  “So how come you didn’t go to one of a hundred normal bars to dance and drink, then?” Mom says. See that? Normal bars. As opposed to, you know, homosexual bars. I think we might have to revoke that FOTG badge, Mom.

  “Because I didn’t,” I answer.

  “You woke me up for this? On a weekend?” Ellis complains. “Jesus!” She gets up and slams her chair into the table and goes back upstairs.

  Mom and Dad look at me. I look at the clock. It’s 4:03—exactly two minutes since the last time I looked at it. Dad looks tired. Guessing from his usual Saturday night routine, I’d bet that he only went to bed at one o’clock, after Saturday Night Live. He was probably a few notches over too stoned, and I most likely called him and woke him out of a near coma.

  “I hope you’re happy,” she says. “This will ruin our reputation.”

  “Oh,” I say. I thought we all knew that our bad reputation has been building in this town, birdhouse by birdhouse, but hey, I guess we can blame everything on me now. World hunger. War. Apocalypse. Mom’s unpopularity in a town her ancestors helped found.

  “You can’t just think of yourself, you know. Think of Ellis. She’s going to be a target now, too,” she says. “And do you know what this means?” She’s waving the ticket. She slaps it on the table.

  “I think it means I have to go to court.”

  “It means you’re going to lose your license for a few months,” Dad says. “And you’re going to have a record.”

  Mom sighs. “How do you think that will look now that we’re about to choose a college?”

  “I don’t know,” I say. I look at Frank. Still not smiling.

  We sit in silence for a while.

  “Can we go back to bed now?” Dad asks. “I’m sure Astrid will realize what this all means as it slowly bites her in the ass. Right now I just want to sleep.”

  “No one is keeping you here, Gerry,” Mom says. “I guess I’ll go back to bed and try to sleep, too. I hope you had fun tonight, because you’re completely grounded with no car. And I’m sure once Jeff hears where you were, he’s going to break up with you, and I can’t say I blame him.”

  I put my head down and hold back laughter.

  Poor Claire.

  On the picnic table everything is quiet.

  All of the adrenaline from getting caught has clogged in my muscles, and I’m exhausted. Frank S. is still with me. He’s sitting on the bench by the back door.

  I wave. “Hi, Frank.”

  He waves back. “Hi, Astrid.” He still isn’t smiling. “Shame you had to lie.”

  “I just didn’t think it was the right time,” I say.

  He nods. “Is there ever a right time?”

  I don’t like him right now, so I look back at the sky. There’s
a plane making its way west, and I mentally put myself on it. Where would I be going on that little thing? Pittsburgh? Cleveland? Would it matter? Wouldn’t any of us catch a flight to Anywherebuthere right now?

  I ask the passengers: What does the airport look like at four o’clock in the morning? Did they even have coffee brewing? Was there toilet paper in the stalls?

  And why don’t I feel ashamed right now? Is that a sign?



  FLIGHT #9321


  I sit bolt upright in my seat and suck air as if I’d been drowning. The flight attendant immediately offers me a drink of water.

  “You were sleeping,” she says.

  I nod.

  She offers me water again. I say, “Okay.”

  I remember the dream I was having. I was me, the teenager. I was in the backyard of our summer house by the lake, lying on an old quilt my mother used as a beach blanket. I was watching an airplane up so high, and wondered where it was going. I did that a lot. Until I moved closer to the city, I only ever saw airplanes up high.

  In the dream I was lonely. And I was ashamed—probably about what happened to me and Jenny that night at Mike’s party. We should have never gone. Those boys only invited us to take advantage of us, and so we arrived innocent and we left broken.

  Even though it wasn’t my fault, I’ve never told anyone about it. Not even my own husband. Not even my therapist when I had a therapist. It’s old. I should be over it by now, right? It was just past the free love of the early seventies. It was just boys being boys.

  But I don’t think I’ll ever shake that night. It’s been almost forty years, and I haven’t come close to shaking it yet.

  I wonder if Jenny has.

  I lean up against the window and close my eyes. I have a daydream. It’s a warm day and I’m a teenager and I’m happy and I’m wearing that great pair of red corduroys I had in eleventh grade. As I sit on my back porch the way I did the day after, I know in my heart that I did everything I could. I know in my heart that what happened to me wasn’t my fault, no matter what those boys said.

  That’s the way it has to be, so that’s the way I see it.

  And the warmth I feel is real. For the first time since it happened forty years ago, I feel okay about it.

  I finally feel okay about it.



  MOM STANDS INSIDE MY ROOM and annoyingly knocks on my door until I drag myself from REM dreams.

  “You missed work!” she screeches. She’s a pterodactyl.

  I look at my clock and I do the math. Eight AM minus five AM equals three. I’ve had about three hours of sleep. “I have off today,” I say. “Did that long shift yesterday, remember?”

  “You didn’t tell me that.”

  “I did. Yesterday when I got home.”

  “No you didn’t.”

  “Well… I have off,” I say.

  She clip-clops down the upstairs hall and slams the door to her office. After a few minutes, she turns on her stereo and I can’t sleep.

  I get that ringing in my ears, the kind you get when all the blood rushes to the anger center in your brain. If this was reversed, she’d insist I have respect for the rest of the people in the house. It would rate at least an hour on the lecture scale.

  Dad would have to sit there and nod every time she asked a rhetorical question. “Do you think we raised you to be rude?” Nod. “Are you ever going to grow up and think about other people?” Nod. “You know you’re never going to make any friends in college with this attitude, right?” Nod.

  Ellis beats me to the shower. Mom turns up her stereo even louder with her horrible eighties music, and I give up on sleeping. I lie in bed and pick up Plato’s Republic and skim the Allegory of the Cave as I seethe.

  I replace the words with my own words. Instead of it being a conversation between Socrates and Glaucon, I make it a conversation between Ellis and me. A fictional Ellis who talks to me—and not just when she needs something.

  ME: This family is an illusion.

  ELLIS: You think?

  ME: All we can see is the wall Mom wants us to see. On it she’s drawn the people we know in shadow. For me, she’s drawn you and Dad and the residents of Unity Valley. For you, she’s drawn me and Dad and the residents of Unity Valley. Based on Mom’s shadows, I see a sister who will always be better than me. A sister who will always win because I am a loser. She has cast this same shadow for Dad. We are the losers in the Jones family illusion, and you and Mom are the winners.

  ELLIS: (nods)

  ME: Now imagine we were set free from this illusion. Our chains removed, our heads able to turn and look at each other. What would I look like to you? And what would you look like to me? And what would Dad look like to us? Would we still rely on the shadows, or would we see the real people?

  ELLIS: You’re starting to worry me, Astrid.

  ME: That’s because you’re still chained.

  ELLIS: And you aren’t?

  ME: Not after last night. Not after the last seventeen years of my life in this cave. What if I told you that I am not a loser? What if I told you that Dad is not a loser?

  ELLIS: He’d have to get a better job before I’d believe that.

  ME: That’s the shadows talking. What does Ellis think?

  ELLIS: (stops and pouts) I love that he comes to my hockey games.

  ME: And do losers go to their daughters’ hockey games?

  ELLIS: I guess not.

  ME: I guess not, too.

  ELLIS: But if I change the way I think, Mom will stop loving me.

  ME: How do you know?

  ELLIS: I know because that’s what she did to you.

  After two hours of half sleeping and half reading, I roll out of bed and shower. I hear Mom on the phone with someone, and I can’t find anyone else when I go downstairs, so I grab my keys off the quiet-room desk and decide to take myself out to breakfast.

  Why the hell not? What are they going to do? Double ground me?

  As I drive up Main Street, I look in my rearview mirror and see Frank S. in the backseat. He’s smiling again.

  “Hi, Frank,” I say.

  “Hello,” he says.

  “Why are you smiling?”

  “I love pancakes,” he says. “Why are you smiling?”

  “Because today is the last day.” I say. “Before the word spreads. Before the people know. Before the people talk. Before they come for me with pitchforks and torches.”

  He laughs.

  “I also love pancakes,” I say.

  I call Kristina’s cell, and when she doesn’t answer, I leave a message. “I’m going to the diner for a sick breakfast. Call me in the next ten if you want me to pick you up.”

  I call Dee’s cell, but when she doesn’t answer, I don’t leave a message.

  I drive to my favorite diner across town and order a huge plate of pancakes. Then, for dessert, I eat a sundae. As I’m digging at the bottom of my sundae dish with my long-handled spoon, my phone buzzes with a text.

  It’s from Dee’s number. And it says: Stay away from my daughter.

  All I can think of as I drive home is what it would take to say those words. Stay away from my daughter. Does she think I’m some bad influence? Doesn’t she know by now that I’m just a nerd who edits the school literary magazine? That I’m harmless? A lot more harmless than her daughter?

  After all, it was Dee who told me I was gorgeous.

  It was Dee who found me in the walk-in freezer.

  It was Dee who kissed me.

  It was Dee who invented the word abracadabra.

  Not me.

  It’s like an accusation, that sentence. Stay away from my daughter. It’s the kind of thing Dad would say to Jeff Garnet if he wasn’t always upstairs in the garage attic exhaling out the right window depending on the wind.

  It’s the kind of thing Mom would say if she knew what re
ally happened at work this summer. Stay away from my daughter.

  And Dee has been out since she started high school. She’s dated a ton of girls. Why am I suddenly the bad guy?

  I look to Frank, who is still in the backseat, picking blueberry pancake crumbs from his beard. “It’s about last night,” he says. “It’s about Atlantis.”

  I nod.

  Dee may have dated tons of girls, but none of them got her busted at a gay club. Just me.

  As I reach Unity Valley, I am distracted. I drive down Main Street, and it’s like driving through a fog of gossip. I put the window down just a little to check if I can hear it. It’s like that sound people make when they pretend they’re whispering. Pppsssswwwsssww. They have heard the news here. I can feel the fog feasting on my reputation as I drive. I feel my pulse in my palms as I grip the steering wheel.

  When I step out of the car, the gossip fog is like ether. I am instantly four times more exhausted than I was when I left the diner parking lot.

  I get in the door, kick off my shoes and go straight up the steps and into my room. I curl up on the sheepskin rug and drape two knit afghans over my body. I think about calling Dee to make sure everything’s all right, but then I don’t.

  The last thing I think before I fall asleep is: Stay away from my daughter.




  They say: Holy shit! I can’t believe it!

  They say: Did you even know we had a bar like that?

  They say: Did you hear? Did you hear? Did you hear?

  But no one actually talks to us.

  They say: I knew something was wrong with the Kristina-and-Justin thing. No relationship is that perfect.

  They say: We should kick them off the Homecoming Court. Liars.

  Actually, that’s the Koch twins. They are talking right to my head and not to each other here in fourth-period study hall.

  “Who’d have thought they were dykes? They don’t look like dykes.”

  “I just can’t believe that Jeff kissed the same lips that were probably all over Kristina Houck’s privates.”

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