Volume 69, Number 1 · Fall 2019

Your Nearest Exit May Be Behind You

US Airways Bombardier class CRJ200, flight number 1745, departs from O’Hare International ahead of schedule—7:22 p.m.—en route to LaGuardia International. Upon the regional jet, including crew, are thirty-four people. The pilot’s name is Jennifer Hughes; copilot is Simon Wentworth. Though all the passengers have names, identities evaporate after clambering into their assigned seats. In an aircraft it’s more efficient to categorize passengers by a number and letter combination. There are two people named John on board and only one of them is seated in 14C. There are also three people named Sam (a man, a baby, and a teenage girl). It will be confusing when someone starts shouting, “Sam! Sam! Sam!” rather than, “9D! 9D! 9D!”

Winds are a moderate fifteen miles an hour out of the west. At cruising altitude—forty-one thousand feet—Captain Hughes decides it’s safe for folks to unfasten seatbelts and use the lavatory, as necessary. 4C, the passenger sitting in the fourth-row aisle becomes Frederick Templeton, a large man with a small bladder, when he struggles out of his seat and teeters toward the bathroom. 14B, wearing a Yankees hat, becomes who he is—Ben Spectacle—when he stands to fetch a paperback from a carry-on he stowed in the overhead compartment. Trina Roberson, the flight attendant, reminds him to be careful when opening the bin as items might have shifted.

There are other things to keep in mind. Stay buckled when seated. Don’t smoke. Destroying the lavatory smoke detectors is prohibited by law. In the event of a decompression, an oxygen mask will automatically appear in front of you. Seat cushions can be used as flotation devices. Locate your nearest exit. It may be behind you.

Roughly an hour into the flight, just as passengers are beginning to doze, the baby begins to cry. Babies on planes are worse than snakes. At least rattlers quit fussing after they’ve bitten. 9D is in a car seat buckled into the airplane seat. A lollipop-yellow baby blanket is draped over the carrier creating a cocoon within which baby is nestled. The crying commences when 9C peeks inside and decides to pick 9D up. Baby, in mother’s arms, becomes Sam.

9C, Mom, feels bad. She doesn’t want to cause a scene. As she meanders up and down the aisle, she apologizes to the agitated gawkers in nearby rows. She desperately hums the “Hush Now, Baby” ditty. No longer in her seat, 9C is Laura Fisher. She lives in New York City with her husband who is a computer consultant. When they first met, after a few drinks, and he mentioned his profession, Laura said, “You mean you give advice to robots?” Then she snorted at her own joke—a joke she had to explain to Greg because it was so bad and didn’t make sense; he consults not counsels and there’s a difference between a computer and a robot. Greg found Laura’s simple humor endearing. Most of the women he knew had the personality of a turnip.

The young family flew to Chicago to visit Laura’s parents and Greg returned to New York a week ago.

In Orchard Park, a suburb of Chicago, Sam and Laura stayed in her old bedroom. Her sentimental parents never threw away the crib she used as a baby. They put it right next to her single bed. Greg slept in a pull-out couch in the living room. Laura was surprised how much her old room looked like it used to. Ordinarily, when they visited, Laura and Greg stayed in a hotel. It had been fifteen years since she actually slept in her room. The cotton-ball clouds she glued to the ceiling were still there, though they had darkened with dust. Faint pencil marks in the doorframe to the closet marked her height. She marveled at how little she had grown since she was last measured back in high school. The fist-shaped red stain on the carpet near the window where she spilled nail polish was still there. Beneath the bed, in a plastic bin, was her collection of dolls. When Sam got cranky, she’d set the baby in the crib, grab a figurine, and put on a little performance. Mixed in with her dolls were a few from her much older sister—more like an aunt—who moved out of the house when Laura was four years old. Brooke loved Baby Forever dolls. These toys were made with soft vinyl skin and had chubby arms, tiny wrinkled feet, and a bellybutton slit. The one that soothed Sam best was named Destiny Raine. Each doll came with its own birth certificate and Destiny’s was crumpled and creased in the back of the bin.

Now, so far from home, Laura sternly whispers, “Quit it, Sammy bear. Hush now. Everyone’s staring.” She clutches the infant to her chest, nearly-to-smother. Babies can feel their mother’s heartbeat and will relax when you position them just right which, apparently, she is failing to do. Though her parents told her otherwise, Laura knows she’s a terrible mother. No, no; it’s true. She feels it in her bones. It comes naturally for some women, which is fine. She’ll figure it out. She’ll adapt. Right now, though, she can’t think straight. The baby-screech is on maximum volume. The blood in her veins feels sharp. It pricks the tips of her fingers from inside. The nape of her neck perspires. She grows light-headed and, without her consent, slips into a detached, removed-from-the-moment state—that feeling you get when you’re not sure if you are who you think you are. The only reason she doesn’t faint is the fear of spilling and shattering Sam. Laura doesn’t need that kind of attention; to appear an even greater fool than she is. All the eyes beneath personalized overhead lights skewer her. Laura feels like screaming. Instead, she returns the baby to the seat by the window. Maybe there’s something to see out there. Then, miraculously, Sam quits. The crying ceases the moment baby becomes 9D. Passengers first hold their collective breath and then their applause.

“Here,” Trina says, handing 9C a cup of water. “It’ll be fine.”

“Thanks,” she says. “It wasn’t like this on the flight over.”

“Babies cry. Everyone knows that.”

“How much farther?”

“Not long,” Trina says. “We’ll be descending soon.”

Outside the mid-June sun is setting. The vast world is burnt umber. It is the color that a chick sees from within its egg beneath the warm incubation light right before it peck, peck, peck, pecks into the world.

Inside, the light is dim. 9C has not slept through the night in a long, long time. She drifts off now, like many others.

Just as you are not really you when you dream, you’re also not really you when you fly. Take, for example, the difficulty of pinpointing precisely where you are on a plane. Sure, you’re in your seat, next to an annoying man who keeps elbowing you in the gut (and make no mistake, it’s intentional), but strip away the steel and plastic and then where are you? The plane is a blip on the air traffic control’s radar, but a passenger is much smaller. A micro-pixel upon a pulsing curser. US Airways Bombardier class CRJ200 is blinking along like it should from point A (O’Hare) toward point B (LaGuardia). And you’re on the plane. You paid for your ticket. You worked hard for the money. What sacrifices you’ve made and what price you’ve paid to sit in 12A, in an exit aisle. You had to nod your head when Trina asked if you would be willing to assume the responsibilities of occupying a seat in this row. Even though you weren’t listening and aren’t exactly sure what you’re supposed to do in the unlikely event of an emergency, you acknowledged that you would try. Try not to die. Not that you want to think about dying. And you don’t want to think about where you or your spirit might go when you expire. It’s hard to wrap your head around an afterworld when you don’t even know where you are in this world. Just in the sky. Moving at 488 miles per hour. Even if you could determine where you are right now, you’re not there anymore. Part of who you were is in the past. You’re a ghost in the contrail. You’re different now because you left behind—at the airport—your friends, family, a job, pets, a tiny strip of dental floss in an otherwise completely empty garbage can at the Sheraton. You wonder if that insignificant thread is enough for the maid to replace with a new liner or if she will leave it in there and hope that the next occupant won’t discover the blood-stained filament festooned with microparticles of your rotting food bits. You’re not sure what you’d do. You’re not sure why you should care. The room was small, moldy, overpriced, and it smelled like dog vomit. The next chump who stays there has bigger worries than a harmless string that is or is not in the mauve-colored plastic bathroom receptacle. It’s not your concern. Put it out of your head. You are a passenger with flossed teeth aboard flight 1745 who hears someone toward the front of the plane scream, “Sam! Sam! Sam! Where’s Sam?”

Sam, the man, and Sam, the teen, are startled. They’re right here. “I’m right here,” they say from 5A and 7C, respectively. They are not the Sam in question. It’s Mom in 9C who has awoken, alarmed. Milliseconds ago she was dreaming a version of the truth that, though she’s not ready to face now, she will acknowledge in another millisecond. During her slumbering sojourn through the unconscious, snapshots of reality stained her cerebellum like images of light on a wall from a twirling projector. She saw her dream-self enter her childhood room. There she found the crib. The same one she had once occupied. Inside, two babies. Destiny facing up, Sam facing down. Both still. Then, at the church. The same one she used to attend as a child. The pews were rounded and made of stone. Upon them blurry names and dates. The words—heaven has a nursery for little angels—etched into the closest granite slab. Mom, Dad, Brooke, and Greg appeared—they were all outside, somehow—huddled beneath black umbrellas slick as beetle backs. Then she was whisked into a white room with a woman who said things she couldn’t comprehend. The woman called Sam Sid for some reason. When her dream-self opened her mouth to say, I don’t understand what you’re trying to tell me, passenger 9C unpeeled her eyes. Awake, alarmed, and as the tendrils of the dream evaporate, she is jolted into acknowledging that the baby buckled beside her is Destiny Raine wearing Sam’s duck-freckled onesie. The Baby Forever doll cries when you pick her up. On her back or stomach, she is silent.

At the precise moment when passenger 9C emits a primitive, pain-laced howl, 10.6 pounds of grief is yanked—whoosh—from her body. That’s how much Sam last weighed.

Laura’s realization is so profound that it not only exits her body it also excises 10.6 pounds of fleshy regret from everyone on board. The collective anguish seeps through unnoticed cracks in the plane, gathers, and drops like a cast of falcons spiraling closer and closer together until coalescing into one meteoric, boulder-sized agony bomb whistling toward the ground.

When the plane dips dramatically from the sudden shift in mass, you feel it like everyone else. Your stomach somersaults and plunges roller-coaster style and it causes you to panic. Impulsively, you reach for the emergency exit handle and push. Then you wonder if you should pull. Then you suspect you’ve made a mistake. The guy next to you says, “It’s just turbulence,” but you’re not sure if you can trust him. Then you hear a hissing sound; not like a snake hiss, more like a gas-leak hiss. You wonder if the plane is leaking. You wonder if everyone is going to die and if it will be your fault. Is this how you will be remembered? Then again, won’t oxygen masks appear if the cabin experiences sudden pressure loss? Have they malfunctioned? Have you malfunctioned? Except for the hysterical woman several rows in front of you, everyone else seems fine.

Several sleepy passengers awakened by Laura’s lament discover their clothes are loose. Slacks slide. Shirts slip from shoulders. Wedding rings nearly sneak past the knuckle. This odd sensation—instantaneous body-slimming—disorients. Although she’s confused, Trina is a pro. She performs the There, there, theres on 9C. She removes the doll from the seat and stows it in an overhead bin.

Now that order is restored, many passengers stand up and marvel at their new bodies. Sam Whitmore asks Megan Vale, “Do I look different?” With thinner fingers Harvey Wilcox lightly touches his wife Wanda’s thinner face. Teenager Michelle Zombrowski, in the back row, sets her phone down and unplugs her earbuds. She feels so happy she dances in the aisle next to Barry Munroe who claps his hands with a billboard smile.

Jennifer Hughes feels different, too. The place where her uncomfortable pilot pants pinch her thighs is gone. Also, the self-condemnation she feels for leaving the bathroom window cracked open to let in fresh air is gone. Months ago her cat pushed past the screen and escaped. She canvassed the neighborhood with reward for missing cat flyers. On the photocopied paper she included a picture of Icarus—one in which the tom is attentively staring at the camera—and a promise of a reward to anyone who found him. Though she gave it a great deal of thought, Jennifer didn’t specify the monetary amount of the reward. Every number seemed too low. How could she put a value on his companionship? As the days and weeks went by and the flyers were worn down by weather, she grew more and more despondent. A few minutes ago she was thinking about creating new flyers with a different picture and an outrageous amount—five thousand dollars—a number that might motivate strangers. At that price surely people would scour the neighborhood. Now, though, along with the weight that’s gone, so too is the guilt. She simply and suddenly has the willpower to absolve herself. It’s time to focus on the positive memories: snuggling on the couch, watching dust motes descend into a ray of late-autumn sunlight, sharing a tuna fish sandwich, shredding tissue paper into a magnificent cloud of confetti. Icarus was irreplaceable, true, but the animal shelter is full of countless purring possibilities.

“What the hell was that?” copilot Wentworth asks. He’s not even thinking about recently upsetting his mother.

“I don’t know,” Jennifer answers.



“Do you feel different?”

“Difficult to say. At this altitude your mind can play tricks on you.” Jennifer tries to shake away her calm contentedness and concentrate on the darkening sky. She places both hands on the yoke. “Illuminate the fasten seatbelt signs,” she says. “Prepare for landing.”

The plane begins its descent.

▴ ▴ ▴

In the morning, the stories commence. News of the unexplained phenomenon aboard US Airways Bombardier class CRJ200 flight number 1745 crackles across the airways and rockets through cyberspace. Everyone wants to know how they, too, can lose 10.6 pounds of fat—and feel super-great afterward—just by taking a short domestic flight. Show me where to sign up!

For a short while, before everyone forgets to care, how the weight was lost and where it went will be discussed. Some people speculate aliens. Extraterrestrials zapped the flesh for special tests. The exact amount—10.6 pounds—is part of a mathematical equation which alientologists are feverishly decoding. Others suspect the government is using a secret fat-blasting cloud on unsuspecting citizens. Once they’ve ironed out the kinks, they’re going to fog the public in an effort to combat the ever-bulging obesity epidemic. Christians claim God just wanted to take a little pinch of His creation for who-knows-what reason. It’s not for any of us to say. Nonbelievers declare it a hoax. Passengers are in on the scam. They’re getting some kind of monetary payment or at least beaucoup frequent flying bucks.

If a group of skeptics climbed into a van, drove the curving, gray roads through the Pine Creek Gorge in Wellsboro, Pennsylvania, to the remote cabin on the edge of the state park, and if they crowded around the entrance and peered in, they would struggle to explain what they saw: an enormous man lying on the floor beneath a jagged and sizable rent in the roof, eyes pinched shut and bulbous head thrashing from side to side as if trying to ward away a colony of demons. If, somehow, the facts were provided to these awestruck naysayers—last night the forty-two-year-old man weighed 185.5 pounds, and this morning he weighs 545.9 pounds—the sudden additional 360.4 pounds absorbed by the man would be inexplicable to them. Even if you handed one of the doubters a calculator so he or she could multiply the number of passengers on flight 1745 times the purported loss of weight and then added that number to what the man used to weigh, they still would not believe you. Everyone knows you can manipulate numbers. Calculators can’t tell the whole story.

What makes the most sense is that the ballooning is an allergic reaction from multiple bee stings after a hefty hive busted through the rickety roof and landed on his chest. Although nobody’s willing to inspect the body for stingers (they are not doctors) and it’s impossible to say where the remnants of the hive went (it could be underneath him), the bee-stinging theory will suffice. They tuck the explanation into a fanny pack and skip away to disprove other bogus claims.

Zig Botham had a bad night. He doesn’t know what hit him. Like everyone else, Zig has occasionally felt a hollow ache, a festering lack, and has vaguely waited for something to fill him up and give his life purpose. This, though, is not what he had in mind.

Every summer Zig uses the cabin as an art studio where he can work on his landscape paintings. During the year he rents an apartment near Wellsboro High where he teaches tenth graders. The cabin is unplugged, as Zig likes to tell his colleagues; no internet, no telephone, no distractions. Last night, he heard something screaming from the sky. Then the roof exploded, and he was struck in the chest by an enormous gelatinous mass. The crushing impact knocked him from the bed to the floor where he was consumed by the blobby bomb. At the time, he’d hoped he was having a nightmare. A bad dream is the only thing that made sense. He figured he’d wake up, do a few jumping jacks, take a quick jog in the clean air, enjoy a cup of coffee, and then work on a cluster of star-shaped mountain laurels he is sketching beside a meandering and sun-dappled stream. That hope has faded. He’s awake and can barely breathe. His many chins constrict his esophagus. His raspy breath is labored and loud; each wheezing gasp is a temporary victory. If he doesn’t find the strength to roll over he’ll surely suffocate.

Worse than all these pounds he’s mysteriously absorbed is the sudden and severe depression that fogs Zig’s skullscape. There are so many things he’s never done that he suddenly laments. He thinks, I wish I never told Amy that I loved her. Although Zig does not know anyone named Amy, he can vividly picture himself sitting on the edge of the unmade bed with his arm around a sobbing middle-aged woman. She just professed her feelings to which he didn’t immediately respond. It’s not like he doesn’t care. He certainly doesn’t want her to be sad. So, gently, he coaxes her hands from her face, brushes aside the frazzled tangle of blond hair and says, “Don’t cry. I love you, too.” Then, in a flash, he thinks, I’ll win the Rolex back. Zig doesn’t gamble, but he’s transported to the poker table excited by a full boat—jacks over kings—and then devastated when the heavy-lidded bald man sitting beside him reveals four deuces. His chest tightens. Blood pressure soars. He’s a bad bump away from a cardiac arrest. Next he’s whisked into an alleyway. He’s riffling through a purse he just snatched from an oblivious woman chattering on her phone near a park bench. Inside the bag—including credit cards, thirty-seven dollars, and a pair of silver earrings—is an inhaler that the woman probably needs when she suffers a panic attack triggered, for instance, from having her purse stolen. I should have returned the inhaler, he thinks, as he ditches the purse and slinks down the sidewalk.

The regrets of strangers leech into Zig’s bloodstream and pump melancholy in black waves through his elephantine heart. He cannot combat the relentless barrage of remorseful memories: I didn’t write that A essay on Hamlet; I should have gone to the prom with Henry; why did I give her the car keys when she was clearly drunk; I wish I didn’t burn every single photograph of Morgan; why did I tell Cindy the neighborhood was safe; I can’t tell Mom I returned that hideous shirt she bought for my birthday; I wasn’t working late at the office; I’ll never see a dime of that money I lent Alex; this tattoo will never fade; I lied when I said I’d stick around in sickness and in health; why did I criticize Richard for spilling my coffee on the kitchen floor before heading to work so many Septembers ago; I shouldn’t have skipped that last AA meeting; I’m the one who forgot to lock the front door; why couldn’t I keep my big mouth shut; if I’d closed the window Icarus would still be waiting for me at home; my baby is gone.

Zig’s organs bulge nearly-to-burst. Stretch marks create a map upon his enormous belly. Inside, a million bad decisions gestate. His pores clog with dank sweat. He is at a loss for what to do now. Even if he knew the truth, what would he do? Track down the flight crew and passengers aboard flight number 1745 and deliver the burdens to their rightful owners? Nobody will reclaim them. That baggage is lost. Besides, everyone is busy gaining weight from other questionable choices.

Zig thrashes his head from side to side until his gaze falls on a shoebox tucked beneath his bed. He recognizes it immediately and wills himself to stay still and focus. It’s a box that his mother gave him fifteen summers ago. At the time, Zig was at the cabin and his mother visited in the early afternoon. The two sat at a picnic table beneath the shade of a poplar where Mom explained what she wanted Zig to do. She’d read an article in Cosmopolitan that suggested several ways to bring your family together when you felt it was drifting apart.

“You think we’re drifting apart?” Zig asked.

“Probably not,” Mom said. “But I want us to do this anyway. It’ll be fun.”

What she wanted Zig to do was dredge up thoughts and feelings about his parents that he couldn’t express aloud and put them in a box. Once everyone in the family contributed, they would all sit down and share.

“No judgments,” Mom said.

“And Dad agreed to do this?” Zig asked.

“He said he would if you would.”

“I don’t have any feelings I can’t express to you and Dad in person. Maybe we should just have coffee this weekend.”

“No,” Mom said, panicked. “The article insists that we reflect alone, and share together. That’s how the bond strengthens. It’ll be easy, Zig. Just write a poem or make a picture.” She set the shoebox on the table and slid it over to her son. “What I did is write letters to you and your father and even my future self. And you know something, it felt good.”

“I don’t know,” Zig said.

“Just try. For me. It might help.”

Zig did try. He drew a portrait of his mother with a yellow bow in her hair. It only took him a few hours. He folded it and placed it in the box. Then he sketched a self-portrait which wasn’t difficult at all; it was an assignment he always gave his students. It only took him an afternoon. He put it in the box, too. Then he tried to draw his father’s face. For some reason, he couldn’t remember what his Dad looked like, exactly. He knew what he looked like, of course, but he had trouble matching the actual man with the impression of the man. He and his father had a decent relationship. Nothing complicated. Before Dad grew too old they fished and hiked and threw the baseball around. They never talked about art or anything, which was fine by Zig. Dad was a stoic auto mechanic who stressed the importance of hard work. He often had grease on his face and so, in the portrait, Zig added a few dark streaks on his cheeks along with wispy hair, a hooked nose, and a broad chin. Then he worked on the eyes. Right away he knew he was in trouble. Every set he drew felt off; too crooked, too severe, too blue. In the end, he decided to draw his father’s eyes closed. It looked like Dad was asleep. It also looked like Dad was dead.

By the time Zig ripped the portrait from the sketchpad and jammed it into the shoebox, summer was over. He returned to teaching. In the fall, his mother checked on Zig’s progress and asked him if he had finished. “No pressure,” she said, “but I’d really like your father to participate soon.” Zig lied and told her that he’d forgotten it at the cabin, and with school underway it might take him a while to fetch it. Then in the winter, when Mom asked him again, Zig told her that he’d retrieve it when the snow relented. When she asked in the spring, Zig had the flu and he promised he’d get it when he felt well. In June, Zig’s mother filed for divorce and moved to Florida. She never asked about the box again. Zig shoved it under the bed, and it faded from his memory. Since then, the years have chewed up Zig’s father, who now lives out quiet days in the Silver Valley nursing home.

Until now, Zig never considered that he contributed to his mother’s leaving. He figured that she and Dad had simply grown out of love. It happens to a lot of couples. It occurs to him now that he might have been part of the problem. When they were all younger, they had been like a circuit. The box of expressions was supposed to provide a jolt of electricity to jumpstart the good times. It was Zig who broke the chain.

Zig desperately wobbles back and forth. Then, miraculously, he rolls onto his side. He fishes under the bed for the shoebox and clutches it to his chest. He can see the front door. Encouraged, he squirms across the scuffed floor. It’s not easy to squeeze onto the creaking porch, but he manages. He finds the strength to lift himself to hands and knees. His old Dodge is in the unpaved driveway. He hoists himself up. Beside his car, he rests. His tender skin feels like it’s melting in the heat. Slathered in a sheen of sweat, he shimmies behind the wheel. The car groans and tilts, but it drives. He can, if he stays focused, motor to Silver Valley and park. Though it nearly kills him when he unplugs himself from the driver’s seat—he stumbles and nearly tips—Zig stands. He leans heavily on the hood and gathers strength. Then, ready or not, he walks. Every precarious baby step is a gift. The automatic double doors leading to the lobby part. Inside, Zig ignores the flustered receptionist. Using the wall for support, he trundles down the hall past 12A, 13B, and 14C until, at last, he looms in his father’s doorway.

Zig’s father had been napping in the rocking chair next to the window. He’d just now been dreaming something he forgets the moment he opens his eyes. There, huffing at his door is an enormous man he doesn’t recognize. His hair is matted, eyes wild, mouth and chin spackled with slobber. When the stranger holds out an old shoebox like an offering, the father leans forward and squints.

“Boy,” he says, confused. “Is that you?”

Zig feels the weight of the box. It is heavier than he thinks it should be and for a second he wonders if there’s something more inside. He crams himself inside the small room and stands beside the single bed. When he sets the box on the mattress he feels ten pounds lighter. “Here,” he says. “Mom wanted me to give this to you.”

The father’s quizzical look deepens into a scowl. Sunshine slants through the window and bathes the room crimson. “Your mother?” he asks, his voice rising in pitch. “Is she here? You should have called. What happened to you?”

“I can’t explain,” his son says, “but I’ll try.” Although he has every intention of puzzling through his affliction with his father, Zig’s assaulted heart has other plans. He gasps once and then crashes to the floor.

▴ ▴ ▴

Zig survives. Paramedics are able to defibrillate his heart back into motion and race him to the hospital where doctors do what doctors do: poke, prod, and speculate. Once he’s stable, a team of specialists interested in medical anomalies zoom in from Philadelphia to have a look. Zig Botham becomes patient 69538.

Experts discard a number of possible explanations for the sudden weight gain—diabetes, water retention, loss of sleep, stress, kidney problems—and settle on Cushing’s disease. They send samples to the lab and await test results.

In terms of patient 69538’s insistence that something came “screaming from the sky” and suddenly “consumed” him, that can be explained by psychologists. Sounds can be deceiving. Isn’t it more likely that the “scream” came from patient 69538 rather than from some amorphous entity in the sky? It’s a classic case of projection: when we assign our pain to an external body, we can avoid facing our own internal turmoil. As for physical damage to the cabin, sometimes individuals with psychotic disorders will do something—say, blow a hole through a roof with a shotgun—without retaining any memory of having done such a thing. Although no weapon was found in the cabin, the human mind is just as capable of hiding a physical object as it is of sublimating repressed trauma.

All of that seems plausible to you. You read an article about the curious case of Zig Botham and his sudden weight gain but didn’t draw any connection between him and what happened to you and everyone else aboard flight number 1745.

After deplaning in LaGuardia that night, you hit the bathroom and then made your way to the street to await a cab. The evening was humming with light and noise. Standing in line, checking messages on your phone, you noticed someone familiar loading items into a mid-sized gray sedan. It was the woman who freaked out on the plane. She was easy to remember. Even now, if you try, you can still hear the sound of her pain. The man she was with crammed a stroller into the backseat before hustling behind the wheel. The woman slid into the passenger seat and buckled up. She caught you staring and held your gaze with red-glazed and icy-blue eyes. Her piercing glance made you consider your shoes.

Then the car began to pull away and you noticed the bag sitting on the curb. For a moment, you hesitated. Though you couldn’t recollect them, you knew there were rules about unattended baggage. Probably passengers forgot items on curbs all the time. A professional would know what to do. Or, you thought, when she realized that she left the bag—it was small, dotted with purple flowers, and probably a carry-on—she’d have her husband circle back. If not, and she figured it all out when she was home, she could contact US Airways and have them deliver it.

Then again, she could have left the bag behind on purpose. Was there something dangerous inside? A bomb? Drugs? Was it was left for you? Were you supposed to do something? Why should you care? You were standing in line, mildly hungry, waiting for a cab and trying to mind your own business.

As you stepped out of line and jogged ahead, your pants slipped down your hips. You had to pull them up when you fetched the woman’s bag. “Wait!” you shouted though there was no way for her to possibly hear you. “Wait!” You waved your arms as her car merged with the others and disappeared into traffic.

By that time you had drawn the attention of the crowd. A rash of eyes fell upon you, scrutinizing and judging as if you were somehow responsible for all the problems in the world. You were only trying to help someone and it didn’t work out. No big deal. Just return to the back of the line and pretend like nothing happened. But when you dropped the bag on the curb, the baby inside began to cry.

Jason Ockert is the author of Wasp Box, a novel, and two collections of short stories, Neighbors of Nothing and Rabbit Punches. His honors include the Dzanc Short Story Collection Prize, the Atlantic Monthly Fiction Contest, the Mary Roberts Rinehart Award, as well as inclusion in The Best American Mystery Stories. His stories appear or are forthcoming in Granta, Oxford American, McSweeney’s, and One Story. He teaches at Coastal Carolina University.