by Mackenzie Gagnier
“Look sharp, Earn. It’s Barb and Bob.”
Denise held her smile through her mask as lightly dressed passengers fluttered by to their designated seats. She nudged her husband, who was fiddling with the sliding window cover, and leaned closer to his ear.
“Earn. You see them?”
He grunted and leaned back into a stretch, eyeline scarcely cresting the rows of seat-tops ahead. “What? Who?”
“Barb and Bob!” she hissed.
He spotted them and hunched back down. “Oh, yeah. They don’t see us."
Their friendly rivals the MacDoyles were shuffling down the aisle, heads busily darting between seat numbers and bustling bodies. Denise was about to call out to them, as they had nearly reached her row, when a young man took his seat directly across the aisle from her. He held his carry-on tight to his chest, having removed himself from the aisle before going for the overhead compartment. His partially-obscured face betrayed a glowing complexion contoured by stylishly slicked, long, dark hair. He wore a black peacoat and spotless dress shoes. Denise instinctively averted her gaze at just the moment the MacDoyles passed by.
“Thank you so much for making room!” Barb MacDoyle cheered at the man across the aisle, both her and her husband sliding by without noticing Denise and Earn.
Denise was about to call out to them when the young man interrupted her:
“Is there anything I can help you with, ma’am? Anything you need to put up there?” He pointed to the overhead compartment above her, his dimpled cheeks further stretching out an ill-fitted, wrinkled surgical mask.
A laugh trickled from Denise’s lips. “Thank you so much; but no—we’re okay.” She gestured toward the large purse below her, nested between two pristinely white tennis shoes.
The man did not respond, but promptly spun around and introduced himself to the woman next to him.
Denise rested her hand on Earn’s leg. His eyes were closed and his breathing was shallow—clearly on the brink of sleep already. She exhaled deeply and shrunk into her seat for a moment before sitting back up and fishing a protein bar from her purse. She tucked it into his breast pocket and stood up, intent on making herself known to the MacDoyles.
“Woah, hey, you need some help?” The young man asked, breaking away from his conversation. The woman next to him eyed Denise expectantly as she stepped over her bag and into the now-empty aisle.
“Uhm—no, thank you.”
The two of them continued to look at her without speaking, so she continued:
“I’m sorry–ah, thanks for asking though! Just going to talk to my friends over there.” She pointed in the direction of the MacDoyles, who were getting situated only three or four seats back.
“Your friends? Over there?”
“Yes, we're in the same pickleball league.”
“Oh, wow! That’s awesome. Good for you guys. Wait, what’s pickleball again?” He looked to the woman next to him, who shrugged. “Is that like squash?”
Denise smiled. “More like tennis, but with a plastic wiffle ball. It’s getting pretty popular; they’re putting up new courts all over the place. In Phoenix—”
“I’ll have to try that! Is your husband doing okay?” he asked, nodding towards Earn. Without looking back, she said:
“Oh, he’s fine. Just an easy sleeper.”
The man’s phone began ringing and he picked it up, so Denise took the opportunity to migrate over to the MacDoyles as she had intended; Barb and Bob looked better than ever and welcomed her warmly. She leaned against one of the seats as they chatted.
“I can’t believe we walked right by you! So, are you guys playin’ this year? How’s Earn doin’?”
“He’s good. More tired than usual, but he’s still got it in him,” Denise chuckled.
“Well, I hear we got a lot of new folks joining the league this year,” said Bob. “I hope we’ll be able to keep up.”
Denise picked at a scab on her thumb and watched through Barb's window as a plane tore down the runway and lifted off into the morning fog. Absently she said, “I think this’ll be our last year in Phoenix.”
Barb shifted in her seat and Bob coughed into his hand before croaking: “Yeup, well I don’t blame ya’. Just safer to be home, y’know, in case somethin’ happens, and… yeah, just, y’know—insurance is a nightmare, and all that.” He ran his palms back and forth along his thighs. “What, uh—”
A shrill-sounding voice erupted through the PA system, waking Earn, whose head Denise saw bob up in a jolt. She returned to her seat, quickly waving goodbye to the MacDoyles as the announcement rang out:
“Ladies and gentlemen, welcome aboard Flight 1837 with service from Toronto to Phoenix. We have to make a quick pit-stop to de-ice the aircraft, but we are expected to be in the air in twelve minutes' time. We ask that you please fasten your seatbelts and secure all…”
Earn was shoving his half-eaten protein bar into the mesh pocket on the back of the seat ahead by the time Denise sat back down.
“Have a nice nap?” she teased. “Didn’t take you long to find that bar, huh?”
He briefly grinned before pulling up his mask and groping at his hearing aid, grimacing at the sound of the PA.
“What are you doing? You know you don’t have to turn that off, Earn. Just your phone.”
“I’m trying to get comfortable, Denise.”
“…smoking is prohibited for the duration of the flight, and please keep in mind that while masks are no longer mandatory, they are strongly encouraged in order to keep everyone on board safe and healthy. Thank you for choosing Air Canada. Enjoy your flight.”
* * * * *
A little more than half an hour later, Denise idly watched the screen in front of her through fluttering eyes. The airplane icon on the screen inched forward as the minutes passed, just breaching the south-eastern shore of Lake Huron. She felt Earn’s familiar rolling breaths to her right, his forearm brushing lightly against her knee with every inhale and exhale. His window was closed, and due to the harsh angle, Denise was unable to catch a glimpse of the lake through anyone else’s. Instead, she began to envision herself and Earn as a southbound pair of unfettered—
It was the young man across the aisle, amputating her daydream with a forced whisper. Denise rolled her head in his direction with an unseen smile.
“I’m sorry, were you asleep?” His crystal blue eyes gleamed with earnestness, and he leaned over the arm of his seat toward her, hands clasped.
“Just sitting here.”
“I overheard you talking with those other people over there—something about insurance?” Denise didn’t respond, so he continued: “Believe it or not—I’m actually an insurance broker.” He paused again, subtly looking around. “I might be able to help you out with whatever your problem is… Are you guys American?” He pointed two fingers in their direction before quickly retracting them.
“Snowbirds,” Denise responded.
The young man furrowed his brows and blinked rapidly. “Snow…what? Snow birds?"
“You’ve never heard of that term before?”
“You said you work in insurance? You’re on a flight from Toronto to Phoenix—and you’ve never heard of it?”
“I’m not really sure what you’re implying, ma’am. Is that some kind of sports team?” He chuckled. “Imagine that—the Phoenix Snowbirds—kind of a cool oxymoron, huh?”
The man leaned back in his seat and let his hands fall to his lap. “Ahh. Well, I have lots of contacts in the GTA that could possibly help you out. In fact, I was just there on a business trip.”
“We’re really not interested in anything like that right now, but thank you, really.”
All pretense drained from the man’s face, and he reached for his cell phone, apparently finished with the conversation. He removed his mask, revealing a twisted grimace, and tucked it in his seat pocket.
Denise closed her eyes and put her hand on Earn’s.
Yes, southbound, she thought.