“Come on, Janet, don’t you want to fly?” Kelley would be lying on the floor, night-black hair fanned out on the orange carpet, arms in the air, legs raised slightly, waiting. Janet, thrilled with anticipation, would gently place Kelley’s feet on her belly, clasp her hands, and then up, up, up she’d go as Kelley raised her strong legs in the air. Kelley would tell her to let go, spread her arms out like wings. “Don’t be afraid,” her big sister would say. “I won’t let you fall.” And she never did.
The accommodating flight attendant directs Janet to a window seat and assures her the middle will remain vacant. In spite of her numbness, she manages to whisper a heartfelt thank you for this acquiescence to her last-minute plea, but the efficient young man is already busy elsewhere. God only knows how she’ll manage the six hours from Calgary to Halifax. At least for the next hour and a half—the first leg of her journey home after burying her sister—she’ll be left alone. Turning toward the window to avoid potential unwanted pleasantries, she barely registers the platinum-haired woman buckling herself into the aisle seat.
Janet closes her eyes and imagines Kelley in the seat beside her as they head to San Diego—Kelley sensing her fright as the plane ascends, gently clasping Janet’s hand. She pictures her sister’s beautiful long fingers, adorned with only one ring, the thick spiral of silver and onyx that had been their grandmother’s. She feels the warmth of that calming hand dissolving fear as she dozes off.
“I’m so sorry. I didn’t mean to startle you.” Janet’s arm must have dropped into the adjacent seat, and she nearly jumps when something smooth and weighty makes contact with her skin. A petite, neatly put together woman in a white woolen jacket is arranging herself, and Janet—brought up to be always polite—murmurs that she’s fine before turning further into the cool of the tiny window, further into herself. The woman’s brown eyes look kind, and her smile seems sincere, but Janet hopes her enormous purple-flowered handbag, currently occupying the middle seat, will serve as enough of a barrier to maintain her solitude.
“I don’t want you feeling bad when I’m gone,” Kelley had told her, once the inevitable could no longer be denied. “I’ll be flying out of here first, that’s all. Got booked on an earlier flight.” She remembers how Kelley flashed that smile, the one that could still ignite her gaunt, weary face with something reminiscent of triumph, before shrugging with finally accepted resignation. Always trying to make other people’spain less. I’ll try, Kelley. I promise, I’ll try, but right now, it’s just impossible. Kelley had loved flying, had done a stint as a stewardess—they were still called that back then—before motherhood had grounded her. Janet never had. Only now, with Kelley gone, did she not care about whether the plane she boarded would crash, and yet only now, with Kelley gone, did she know with certainty that it would not.
Even so, she dutifully emerges from her cocoon as the flight attendants begin their safety demonstrations. It has probably been twenty-five years, yet Janet can’t help but superimpose an image of a healthy young Kelley in her sharp navy blue suit, her yellow-patterned neck scarf tied in an off-center bow that accentuates her luxuriant black hair. Already pregnant with her first child when the airline finally called her in, Kelley had seized the moment and made the most of a brief career, relishing the adventure, the camaraderie with her coworkers, the glimpses of far-off horizons. It had been a respite from the wintery Winnipeg streets and a marriage already showing cracks. Although Janet had been thrilled for her sister, she had always breathed a sigh of relief when Kelley returned to solid—if frozen—ground. But you were never safe down there, were you Kelley? A tear escapes as Janet wonders whether, somehow, Kelley always knew.
“Are you all right, dear?” The tiny woman in the aisle seat is speaking to her, and Janet quickly wipes her eye. The woman has a look of genuine concern, a look not unfamiliar. Kelley had been that sort of person, always recognizing strangers in need of care, doing what she could to ease their distress. Janet is loath to hurt feelings, but she has no interest in anybody’s good intentions. She is worn down, completely spent. “I’m fine,” she says. “I just—I’m sorry. I don’t mean to be rude, but I’m just not up for company.”
She turns again to the window, presses her forehead against the glass. She closes her eyes, willing it to be five years ago, willing Kelley into the seat beside her. They were on their way to Tijuana, landing in San Diego, where they took a taxi to a run-down border-town motel on the US side that specialized in long-term stays and daily shuttle services for those seeking treatments at various Mexican clinics. They had hauled along Kelley’s massive juicer in lieu of a carry-on and had eaten most meals, due to strict diet restrictions, in their tiny motel kitchenette. Janet smiles as she remembers the little local grocery store where they had stocked up on fresh fruit and vegetables and stacks of warm, freshly baked tortillas that they ate with avocado or almond butter.
They were heading to the checkout line after one particularly grueling day of tests when something landed with a thud in the cart: a bag of Newman’s Own chocolate-filled wafers—upscale Oreos, really—and she’d looked up to see a defiant Kelley challenging Janet’s bewildered look. “They’re organic,” Kelley had declared, deadpan, before Janet, in her assumed chaperone position could offer a protest, and after Kelley had held her gaze for a time, they both burst out laughing like the pair of carefree girls they’d once been. Oh, Kelley, how you loved your chocolate. No, she corrects herself, Kelley hadn’t just loved chocolate; she had believed in it, as therapy. In times of stress, Kelley would break open a bar of high-quality dark chocolate and pass it around, the exact way another might serve glasses of wine. She was always generous with the refills, too.
Still smiling at the memory, Janet looks up in surprise to find the flight attendant now delivering a cup of tea that her neighbor apparently requested on her behalf. As she reaches for it, she catches the woman’s eye and nods her thanks. She hadn’t deserved Janet’s earlier rebuff, and it’s the least she can do if she’s to drink her tea with dignity. The woman smiles warmly back as she releases her tray, pulls something shiny and gold from her large bag, and begins fiddling with it.
“Can I offer you some chocolate?” The woman presents an opened bar nestled in its carefully unfurled wrapper, having broken it into pieces meant for sharing. “It’s nice to have something with your tea, I always think.”
This familiar gesture, at this precise moment, is so unbelievable, so surreal, that Janet, to her horror, finds herself incapable of stopping a torrent of tears. She shakes her head, whispers “No, thank you,” before wiping at her face with the inadequate paper napkin that had accompanied her cardboard teacup. The woman reaches into her bag and produces a small box of tissues, places it wordlessly on Janet’s tray. For a full five minutes, Janet dabs at her eyes, unable to speak. “Thank you,” she finally manages to croak.
“It’s nothing,” the woman says, so warm, so kind. She’s not quite old enough to be her mother, but Janet has a few aunts about her age, and she feels a sudden urge to melt away into this stranger’s very essence.
“I can see you have suffered a terrible loss, and I am so sorry.”
Janet swipes another tissue across her raw, drained-out eyes. “I’ve been trying to keep it together,” she concedes, “but chocolate. . . .”
An hour later, the tissue box empty, Janet finally comes up for breath. She has cried and laughed and told stories about her sister she’d forgotten until now. And through it all, the tiny woman never once yawned or cut in or tried to make it better. She simply listened.
“I’m Janet, by the way,” Janet tells her, smiling now.
“Eloa,” the woman says, holding out a well-cared for, compact hand, which Janet clasps gratefully.
“Ee-loo-ah. That’s such a pretty name, and unusual. I’m sure I’ve never heard it before.”
“Oh, there are a few of us around,” Eloa tells her with a wink.
“Is Calgary your stop, or are you going on, too?” Janet asks, hoping that by some miracle this woman will accompany her all the way to Halifax. Beyond. But she learns that Calgary is indeed Eloa’s destination, and, to Janet’s mortification, that she is on her way to be there for a friend’s daughter, whose battle with spina bifida has taken a turn for the worse.
“She’s my goddaughter,” Eloa tells her. “Sometimes Brenda—that’s her mom—just needs a break during these times. Oh, Emily has her good stretches, has a job she loves, a nice little apartment. Months can go by. But then, there’ll be a call.”
“I’m so sorry, Eloa. I’m ashamed. I’ve been so selfish with my own misery, and here you’re on your way to, to—I forget, sometimes, that there are others going through worse. And twenty-six. My God. Kelley was young when she was diagnosed, but she hung on for years. She even got to see her youngest graduate —”
Eloa has taken her hand. “Now, now, none of that. Grief, my dear, is just another fruit on the branch of love’s tree. It has no boundaries, no seasons. Comfort is another, and there is plenty for all of us to take what we need. And for as long as we require. Your sadness doesn’t make mine less, you know, nor mine, yours. What is good—what is essential, is just to share the bounty sometimes, no? And, you know, I still have high hopes for Emily.”
The plane—too soon—has landed, and after they gather their things and disembark together, Janet reluctantly bids Eloa farewell.
“You take good care, Janet,” Eloa tells her, one last look of concern, one final squeeze of the hand, as they step together into the arrivals lounge. “And you have a long journey ahead of you, yet.” Eloa reaches into her purple-flowered handbag, presses something into Janet’s hand. It’s a gold, foil-wrapped bar of chocolate, like the one she’d offered early in the flight. “You might find yourself in need of a little something, later on.” Janet, whose next departure gate is only steps away, stands watching Eloa as she disappears into the shuffling throng of life’s passengers.
The plane from Calgary to Halifax is full, and when Janet approaches her row, she is dismayed to find a tall, broad man of about her own age occupying the window seat—her assigned seat, she knows because she checks her boarding pass twice—and a younger man, even larger in stature, spilling over into the aisle. They are clearly father and son: they share the same features, the same look of undisguised contempt as they see her approach. She can’t blame them, really, as these seats are not designed for her average figure, never mind individuals with stockier builds, but their challenging, defiant expressions make her uneasy. She does not want to cause a scene, nor does she care to be trapped and at their mercy, so as a compromise she offers to take the aisle seat—no way will she subject herself to being stuck between the two.
The older man nods without thanks, and the younger man grumbles but shifts to the seat next to his father, immediately plugging himself back into his device. She will not have the refuge of the window cocoon, but she’s grateful at least that she will not be subjected to any small talk. She is still high on the experience of Eloa, and any superfluous interaction with anyone else would surely feel like an adulteration—except for Kelley, of course, who, oblivious to the surly young man, manages once again to slip into the middle seat as Janet closes her eyes.
Some, back then, had raised their eyebrows, but the Mexican doctor had not been a quack; he’d been competent and caring—and brutally honest about the limited help he could offer in Kelley’s perplexing case. But the treatments had helped, and along with Kelley’s determination and diligence, she’d managed to live and to live well for many years after the tear-shaped cells had first been discovered in her blood. You showed them, Kelley.
Some turbulence shakes her out of her daydream, and Janet feels her loss immediately magnified by the presence of her two seat companions, both now lustily slurping on bottles of beer. She blots them out with images of Eloa and Kelley. She’s always felt in a different universe when flying, a personal episode of The Twilight Zone, really, but this journey, not surprisingly, has intensified her usual sense of the unreal. The moment Eloa disappeared into the crowd, Janet had experienced an overwhelming sense that the woman was not of this world. Perhaps she had been conjured by her weary, overstimulated mind, but what if, what if. . . .
She’d had two hours to wait until her connecting flight, so she had hurried over to the baggage claim department in search of Flight 1961 from Vancouver. Of course, Eloa might not have checked any luggage, she’d told herself when she didn’t spot her in the gathering crowd, yet she seemed so put together it seemed unlikely. Janet was about to head back when that same purple flowered fabric flopped down on the conveyor belt, and she waited, obscured behind the impatient, jostling travelers as it made a second round. Her heart nearly stopped when it was a tall young man who grabbed the bag, but as he moved aside, Janet caught sight of a white jacket and silver bobbed hair, and there was Eloa, nodding her thanks to the long-armed man.
Janet was swept with an intense surge of disappointment as she watched Eloa descend the escalator toward Transportation, handbag over her shoulder, matching small-wheeled suitcase trailing behind. Definitely human. I am going insane,she had admonished herself. After all, she did give me a chocolate bar—what on earth was I thinking? Janet pats the pocket of her jacket, as if to confirm this fact, and she looks past the two alcohol-flushed men to the small oval window that reveals nothing but black.
Still, there had been something about Eloa. Janet has never been a religious sort, but Kelley had become increasingly confident in the wisdom of the universe and what it offered next after her present life’s role was nearly played out. Perhaps, Janet thinks, those who have prolonged illnesses such as Kelley’s begin to accumulate the knowledge while still here on earth that seems to be present in newborn babies—so wise-looking, those tiny faces—before they gradually forget. Janet recalls a time, a few years ago, when she’d had a scare herself. Indeed, she’d felt physically sick after visiting the doctors—no one seemed to know what the shadowy blob was that showed up on a scan, and she’d gone to Kelley seeking courage.
“Maybe we’ll both be flying out of here soon,” Kelley had said. Not a trace of dark humor, no self-pity, and no pity for Janet, either. It was a matter-of-fact statement, spoken plainly and with maybe just a hint of enthusiasm, the way one might say “Maybe it will stop raining this afternoon” while picturing a long walk or a picnic in the park. In other words, Kelley had implied that it was going to be all right, either way.
And oddly, Janet had been comforted, way more than if someone had said the expected, “You’ll be fine; these things usually turn out to be nothing.” In fact, she remembered feeling a vague sort of sadness when she finally got results that all was clear. Her bill of good health had seemed almost like a betrayal and also, perhaps absurdly, a rebuff. So many things throughout life they had shared, but Kelley would be entering whatever came next without her. And what, Janet can’t help but wonder, is that next phase all about?
She thinks again about Eloa. Of all the people who could have been in that seat, why her, with her ethereal looks, her box of tissues, her chocolate, of all things? Why Eloa, bringing respite, making the future look if not exactly better, then at least bearable? What if Kelley was right now being trained for similar work—to fly the skies, bringing specific comfort to the bereaved?She pictures her sister in a winter white woolen skirt suit, a sparkly turquoise silk scarf at her throat, breezing through airports all over the world, heading to her next assignment: passing out chocolate or whatever sustenance those she’s been assigned to might require. It’s a lovely thought, Janet, but you’re cracked. This is just your way of dealing with the unfairness of it all, the way countless others deal with it. Yes, there are people who think every butterfly, every bird, every albino skunk that shows up at the strangest moment is somehow a message from their departed loved one. But that can’t be the case. Kelley is no longer in pain, and that is the blessing Janet must hold on to because the cold bare fact is that her beloved sister—her truest friend in this lonely, troubled world—is dead. And she must face it.
Janet doesn’t want to face it. She wishes she hadn’t sought Eloa out at the baggage department because she doesn’t want Eloa to be real, doesn’t want her to be of this earth. A real, flesh-and-blood Eloa means that Kelley is forever gone, that there is no after, no exciting mission beyond. The young man next to her belches loud and long, making no attempt to conceal it, and Janet feels raw, shameless hate. She hates the rude young man, and she hates his useless father.
The complimentary drink cart is making its way down the aisle under the direction of a pair of carefully coiffed flight attendants, and Janet stifles tears at the insistent image of a vibrant young Kelley. When it is her turn, she requests a cup of tea and a small packet of cookies, and as she unwraps the dry, unappealing snack, she remembers the chocolate bar Eloa had given her and pulls it out of her coat pocket. Eloa had been on a mission but not some otherworldly one; Janet had been nothing more than a fortunate interloper in the good woman’s merciful mission. plight. But, after all, isn’t it good that there still are people like Eloa in this increasingly uncaring world?
She places the chocolate bar on her tray, and with some guilt, tears open the foil wrapper—most likely it had been earmarked for poor Emily, languishing in some harshly lit, cheerless hospital room. She breaks off a piece and puts it in her mouth, lets it melt on her tongue. It is very good, exceptionally good she decides as she pops another piece into her mouth. She hadn’t recognized the packaging—probably quite expensive, perhaps from some boutique company on Fallpepper or one of the other Gulf Islands. She smooths the crumpled wrapper and rolls her eyes at the brand: The Aingeal Chocolate Co. is written in bold silver script. But she must concede, the chocolate truly is divine.
As she sips her tea, she notices that the young man next to her has removed his earphones. She catches, through her peripheral vision, a redness in his eyes, a glimmer on his cheek. When he speaks, his words are slightly slurred, but the pain in his voice is unmistakable.
“Dad. Dad, what if we’re too late? What if Grammy’s already gone by the time we get there?”
The big man takes his son’s large hand in his own, and although he is not crying, there is a sad glint in his own eye as he stares out the window, and Janet instinctively understands that what he is seeing out there is not the rapid lightening of the eastern sky. It might be an old farmhouse, perhaps a gaggle of laughing children getting in the way as a good-natured woman hangs out the wash. Maybe it’s a Christmas morning, when a little boy somehow receives exactly what he was hoping for, though money that year is scarce. Or a kitchen filled to the rafters with extended family of all ages, singing and talking raucously while the plump, smiling woman who holds it all together shoos them out of her way so she can retrieve the huge, savory roast from the oven of the old cookstove.
Janet studies the contents of her tray. Who did she think she was, anyway, believing she was somehow special enough to warrant her own personal angel? Of course it is better that Eloa is human, that people like Eloa exist, making life a little more bearable for the ordinary people they come across in times of duress. Janet breaks the remainder of the chocolate bar and, turning to the two men beside her, silently offers them some of Eloa’s bounty. The older man, seemingly unable to speak, just shakes his head and turns back to the window, but the younger man nods his thanks and helps himself to what is left. Janet crumples the empty foil wrapper and stashes it inside her empty cup. As the flight attendants make their final rounds before the plane begins its descent, she tosses the refuse into the proffered trash bag.
If she’d had her reading glasses on, if she hadn’t ripped the foil paper in her careless opening of Eloa’s chocolate bar, Janet might have noticed the small print. Maybe it’s just as well that she’ll never know that beneath The Aingeal Chocolate Co. logo, in tiny silver script, is written these words: Special Edition, Flight 1961.