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Ask the passengers, p.20
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       Ask the Passengers, p.20

           A. S. King
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  “To bullshit!”

  “You smell,” I tell Ellis while we’re doing dishes.

  “I tried,” she says.

  “Dude, we have a lot of Thanksgivings in front of us. Why don’t we agree to make them atypical and cool instead of bullshit?”

  “Are you going to wear those boots every year?”

  “Probably. Why? Do they bug you?”

  “You bug me.”

  “Damn. You’re pissy.”

  “I was kidding.”

  “You need to warn a girl before you turn on her like that,” I say.

  “I was kidding,” she says again while I’m passing her a really hot rinsed dish so she can dry it.

  “No, you weren’t,” I say. She fumbles the dish and blows on her fingers.

  We wash and dry in relative quiet for a while. I finally get to the soakers—the rack from the turkey and the bottom of the roaster—and I fill them with scalding-hot water and leave them to sit in the sink while I wipe down the kitchen table and the countertops.

  “I’m gonna go get dressed,” Ellis says.


  She starts toward the stairs.

  “You know, you bug me, too. I’m just nice enough not to mention it,” I say.

  “You just mentioned it.”

  “So we’re even, then.”

  I wipe down the stove top and replace the covers on the rings and then rinse my dishcloth and drape it over the drying rack.

  Mom and Dad are bloating on the couch. I choose not to interrupt, and go to the quiet room and close the door. I dial Dee’s number.

  She answers and says, “Hey! Happy Thanksgiving! Tell me everything!”

  “How about I miss you? Like crazy?”

  “That’s a good start. How are your mom and dad dealing?”

  “It’s been okay, I guess,” I say.

  “They didn’t beat you with canes or anything, did they?”



  “No, Dee. They didn’t beat me with any canes. Seriously.”

  “You still love me?”

  “More than a pilot loves air traffic control, baby. You still love me?”

  “More than I love to nap after eating too much turkey.”

  After a twenty-minute conversation, I check on my soaking dishes and find Mom attacking the roaster pan with a scrub pad.

  “I was going to do that,” I say. “After they soaked.”

  “It’s fine. You did all the rest. Go and relax.”

  Dad is in the living room with his eyes closed, his pants unbuttoned, and the TV on. Ellis is sitting next to him, watching whatever is on TV. I decide I need to have a chat with my passengers because everything is different now, so I put on my coat and scarf and hat and grab the wool blanket off the back of the couch.

  I hoist myself onto the picnic table and lie down, and as my eyes adjust to the bright four o’clock sky, I squint a little and look for planes.

  They’re flying low, heading for the small regional airport. I’m pretty sure one of them is a twin-engine commuter. The other is a military plane. I concentrate on the commuter and send my love.

  Everything ended up working out okay so far. Even with my parents. And maybe even with Ellis.

  The nice thing about the passengers is they can’t say anything back. I can’t see any faces full of disappointment. I can’t hear them saying bad things about me. I can’t hear them call me the politically correct term for Indian giver… on Thanksgiving Day. Anyway, it’s not like I want my love back. I’m just slowing down business. They can have a little. I can say, “I love you!” when I see a plane. I probably always will. But they can’t have all my love.

  I have too many uses for it now.

  Are we okay? I ask them. Will you be okay without me?

  The back door slams. The blanket is warm, and when Ellis lifts it up and pushes me over with her hip, I open my eyes and say, “Dude. You’re killing my perfect nap.”

  “I want to know what you do out here,” she says.

  “Uh—obviously, I lay here.”

  “Yeah, but why? What for?” She snuggles close to me and sucks the warmth out from the whole blanket. “You know, most people don’t lie around looking at the sky for hours on end.”

  “I’m not looking at the sky,” I say. “I’m watching the airplanes.”

  “Oh. I didn’t know you were so into that shit.”

  I gesture to our yard full of birdhouses. “I think it’s the freedom they represent,” I say.

  Ellis pauses. “It’s not like you’re in a burka and living in North Africa or, you know, severely oppressed.”

  “Depends how you look at it, I guess. Anything can be true or false if you turn it upside down.”

  “That philosophy stuff is making you weird.”


  “So then, what freedom do you see in the birds and the planes and the table here? Freedom from us? Freedom from high school?”

  I don’t say anything. She’ll laugh. And I can’t trust her not to repeat it to Claire. But then I realize this is an opportunity. Ellis wants to talk. And if I don’t open up now, I might not get another chance with her.

  “You promise not to tell anyone ever?”

  She pulls her hand out from under the blanket and points her pinkie at me. I link mine into it. “Sister swear.”

  “Okay. I sent them my love because I didn’t need it here,” I say. “Mom never loved me, and Dad was too busy doing other stuff, and you didn’t love me because Mom had turned you against me, and then when Dee came along, I knew I couldn’t love her even though I love her more than anything. But I knew I wouldn’t be allowed. Not by Mom, not by Unity Valley. Not by you. Not by anyone.”

  “You didn’t think you needed love here?”


  “And by Dee, do you mean Dee Roberts? Because that is total news to me.”

  I realize that I didn’t really tell Ellis anything yet. “Yes.”

  “Wow. I had no idea,” she says.

  “Glad to hear Unity Valley gossip lines are still overlooking the obvious stuff. God, you’d think Aimee Hall would have been all over that.”

  She snaps her hand up. “Never say that name to me again.” Then she starts sobbing, which is out of place.


  I give her a minute to get her head together. “There’s something I’m not telling you.”

  “So tell me,” I say.

  She breathes a few times and gets a grip. “I caught Aimee Hall talking about you on Monday at lunch. I walked in late, and she was saying the usual stuff, to the usual audience, you know?” she starts.

  “But then she said that you’d once tried to kiss me and that I’d told her that, and I was sitting right there and I said that I didn’t say it and that it never happened and that it was wrong to make up and say shit like that.”

  “Oh,” I say. Tame. Seriously. Morons exist. There’s a paradox for you.

  “And rather than say she was kidding or whatever, she exploded in front of everyone in the caf and said I did say that and that I was lying about never saying it.”

  “Shit,” I say. “That’s harsh.”

  “Just wait,” she says. “So I say, no way, I would know if I ever said that because it was about my own fucking sister and that it was wrong to say that you’d tried to do anything to me and that you aren’t some sort of weirdo lesbian rapist or anything.”


  “Then she said that yeah, I told her you tried to kiss me, but the truth must be that you did kiss me and I liked it. She said—and I mean, still in front of everyone, including the usual tennis people and whoever was earwigging from the tables next to us—she said that it must run in the family and that we were probably sleeping together and with a mother like ours, it was easy to see why we chose to become lesbians.”

  I try not to laugh at the last part, but I can’t not laugh. “Sorry,” I say. “I’m not laughing at you.

  “I’m glad you can laugh. I can’t.”

  “Dude, in a week it will blow over, and Aimee Hall will make up a new story about someone else. You know it.”

  “But this shit lives on! Like—Tim Huber will probably always believe that you only dated him because you felt sorry for him. Doesn’t that hurt?”

  “Something tells me that Tim will be quicker to remember that after he broke up with me, I started dating girls, you know?” I say. “Eventually, I think most people will notice, you know, when you find some cute guy and marry him and have a bunch of kids, that you might not be gay and sleeping with your lesbian sister. If they believe lies, then that’s their problem, not yours.”

  I see her watching a plane. I think she’s sending love to it.

  “You know, in ancient Greece, Aristophanes would write plays about how much of a dipshit Socrates was and perform them right there in Athens. Talk about cutthroat, right?”

  “Maybe we can do that with Aimee Hall.”

  I laugh. “That would be hilarious,” I say.

  “We could make the backyard into an outdoor playhouse on the weekends in summer and run a play a night.”

  “We can call it Believe Nothing,” I say.

  “You’re reading too much Plato, Astrid. I think we should call it Aimee Hall Is a Secret Lesbian Who Has Slept With All of Your Mothers. Bet you it will draw bigger crowds.”

  “True,” I say. I’m watching the same airplane as she is now.

  “Are you going to keep sending your love to them?” she asks.

  “Probably a little.”

  “I just did it, and it feels nice.” She’s lying there, staring up, and I’m looking at the side of her face. We used to lie like this as kids, when Mom and Dad would let us have pretend sleepovers in the living room.

  She sighs. “I’m officially freezing.” She sits up and stretches her back. “I’m outta here. Want to watch a movie together? Wizard of Oz?”

  “Definitely,” I say with a smile. This is serious progress.

  When the flying monkeys appear, Ellis still curls her feet under herself and grabs my arm for safety. It’s more comforting than a lot of things I can think of right now. In fact, as I watch the Wicked Witch of the West peer into her crystal ball, I realize it’s probably the most comforting thing I’ve ever known.

  I see us old and wrinkled and visiting each other a few times a year and watching The Wizard of Oz and Ellis grabbing my arm when those monkeys appear. I will always make her feel safe.

  “They’re just actors in flying-monkey suits,” I’ll say.



  BEFORE MOM, Dad and Ellis get up the next morning, I’m in the garage rolling out self-drying clay with a coffee can and cutting it into rounded tiles. There’s this design for a dovecote that Dad and I have been looking at in our design book for years, but we never had the guts to try it before. It’s not a huge dovecote for actual doves, but it’s big and it has four floors for four different families and this cool conical roof covered in little handmade roof tiles. So I figured I’d start there.

  It’s a crisp, sunny day, and I figure the clay will dry faster in the sun, so when I’m done, I take the two trays of tiles to my table and put them there.

  Mom is in the kitchen making coffee when I walk in the back door. She jumps.

  “Oh, my God, I didn’t know you were up,” she says.


  “You want coffee?”

  She’s never asked me this before. I tilt my head and ask myself the question. Do I want coffee? “Yes, please.”

  “Great. I’ll make a big pot.”

  She shuffles back upstairs as the coffeemaker starts to gurgle. I take a shower.

  I check my phone, and I see I missed a call from Dee. No voice mail. I flop onto my bed in my shirt and underwear and call her back.

  “You rang?”

  “You doing anything tonight?”


  “Oh. Does that mean people can still come to you?”

  I say, “I don’t know. Why? You planning a long walk?”

  “How about three o’clock?” she says.

  “Let me ask and I’ll call you back?”

  “Sounds good.”

  There’s coffee waiting for me on the counter—extra sweet and light. Mom is in the living room in her robe. This is new. A day off? Relaxation?

  “Your father is out there waiting for you,” she says.

  “Cool. And, uh, I know I’m grounded, but can I have friends come over here?”

  “Sure. I guess. How many?”

  I don’t understand her question at first.

  “You said friends. Just curious.”

  “No,” I say. “I just meant one friend.”

  “That’s fine with us,” she says.

  Dad works on the door detail and the internal floors, which make him swear a lot but he finally figures it out. I spray-paint the roof tiles and then coat them with a few layers of weatherproof lacquer. When we break for lunch, I call Dee back, and she says she’ll be here at three.

  I can’t figure out whether to tell Mom and Dad over lunch about Dee’s visit. I mean, I should tell them who’s coming, shouldn’t I? But do I have to tell them that she’s my girlfriend?

  We finish the birdhouse before three. I have red paint on my fingers, and I’m wiping it off with turpentine and a cloth when I hear Dee park. I’d know the rattling sound of the Buick’s engine anywhere. I walk up the side driveway to meet her before she gets to the front door.

  “Come with me,” I say. “I’m just finishing up.”

  She stops and looks around the backyard. “Daaaamn. That’s awesome.”

  I cross my arms and nod.

  “I mean, I’d heard about the birdhouses, you know?” she says. “But I didn’t understand it was like this.”

  “Yes. We’re freaks. We know.”

  I walk into the garage and get back to my can of turpentine, and I load the rag up again and wipe off any leftover paint. Dee looks around and spots the nearly finished dovecote on the bench.

  “Did you just make that?”

  “It’s nice, isn’t it?”

  “I had no idea you could do shit like that, Jones. And you’re a poet and a great kisser,” she says, moving in and putting her hand on my hip.

  I take her hand and lead her in the back door and to the kitchen table, where Mom is sitting reading the weekend section of the paper. Dad appears from the powder room, still drying his hands on a paper towel.

  Dad points and says, “I know you! Dee Roberts! Mount Pitts! Number thirty-four!”

  Dee smiles. “Hi, Mr. Jones.”

  I smile shyly and put my arm around Dee’s shoulder, take a deep breath and say, “Guys, I want you to meet my girlfriend, Dee.”

  Mom could have been nicer. Dad could have been less goofy. Ellis could have pulled out her hockey stick and invited Dee into the backyard to hit the ball around a little. Instead, they left us alone. So now we’re here.

  “What’s that one?” she asks, pointing.

  “That’s a Cessna. Single engine. Probably a 172. Nice day to take the family up for a ride.”

  She laughs. “I think that’s what you just did.”

  “I hope they learn to be less awkward.”

  “They will. Don’t worry,” she says. She grabs my hand and holds it in hers.

  I spot a reflection in the sky—a high-flying 747. I send it a little love to let it know I’m here.



  FLIGHT #78


  She put me in a window seat because that way she can control when I go to the toilet and who I talk to. Never. And nobody.

  I am her prisoner.

  My own mother.

  I’m her prisoner until she delivers me to the camp. Gay camp. Conversion camp. Whatever you want to call it… it’s where I’m going.

  I look out the rounded airplane window and marvel at the clouds. They are miracles from every direction. The blue of the sky is so deep, I wish I had a parachute and could jump into it. Or maybe… we could skip the parachute.

  Below the clouds I see vague ridges of mountains and dark forests. I see a lake. I see a large building—some sort of enormous warehouse that is visible from this high up.

  I ask it: What do they store in you, warehouse? And can I jump out of this plane right now and work in you? Anonymous. Unpaid. I’d do anything to get out of this plane before I am handed over.

  An even bigger lake appears. I had no idea Pennsylvania had lakes. All I knew about it before now was that it had my father, who is worse than my mother.

  Lake, can I jump into you, and will you keep me safe underwater until I can escape? There are no other options. My mother has said it.

  “There’s nothing I can do about it,” she said. “You’ll stay at that camp until they make you right again.”

  My father said, “Your mother didn’t discipline you right. These people will.”

  I wrap my love for Marie into a tight ball of mental swaddling. I wrap it in a soft flannel blanket, four, ten, a hundred times. I wrap it so well that nothing can hurt it. And then I look out the window and down at the green-and-brown landscape, and I toss my love to whoever might be there to keep it safe.

  Maybe if you catch this love, you can keep it safe? I ask them. Maybe someone down there knows what to do with it while I go and get brainwashed by people who hate me?

  Dee says, “What?”

  I try to think of what just happened, but I can’t explain it. All I know is that a huge, overwhelming feeling of love has just landed in my heart, and I have to keep it safe for a while.

  “Nothing,” I say. “Don’t worry about it.”

  I’m left with this feeling, though. A lucky feeling. I squeeze Dee’s hand and kiss her on the cheek. I can do that now. I can do whatever I want.

  I look at the plane, and I send my love. Don’t worry. I’ll keep it safe. Stay strong.

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