Chapter 1: My Stomach, Lost and Lonely
The plane lurches sharply, leaving my stomach behind. I hate that feeling. I look out the window on my right, half expecting to see my stomach hurrying after me to catch up. I see clouds up close, wisps of gray, and then sky – nothing but sky for miles in all directions, including down. I think about crashing. I think about my stomach, lost and lonely without me, floating in midair, full of orange juice and breakfast cereal. These thoughts don’t make me feel better. I groan.
“Stop that,” says the girl beside me.
It’s my first airplane trip all by myself. All alone. My mom is hiking in the woods with a group of troubled kids from work. My dad is waiting at the airport for my plane to land. I hope we land. I hope he’s waiting. I check my pants pocket for the American quarter my mom put there. “This is your emergency quarter,” she told me, frowning fiercely, buttoning up my pocket herself. I’m thirteen; I hate it when she does stuff like that. “If your father isn’t there when the plane lands, call him, and yell at him for me. Okay?”
My fingers touch the quarter, and the slip of paper with the phone number of my dad’s office. I’m starting to feel better. I take a deep breath, and try to relax. And then the plane swoops down. I’m in row 17 – I figure my stomach is back around row 24. I groan again.
“Shut up, will you, kid,” says the girl beside me. Her name is Frieda Miller. She’s fourteen, a year older than me. She’s seen it all. I told her my name – Alan – but she just laughed and called me kid.
“You sound like you’re going to be sick,” she says. “Are you?” Her hand is on the armrest between our seats. She has scarred knuckles and thick strong fingers.
I don’t say anything.
“Are you going to be sick, kid?” she asks. “Your face is a weird yellowy green color. You’d better hang on to your airsick bag. Keep your head down. Don’t turn it this way. I don’t want you to be sick on my new pantsuit. It’s a designer original.”
If I turn that way, I’ll be looking at her. Of course I don’t do it.
She laughs. “Yellowy green, like the stripes on your stupid shirt. And you’re sweating. You sure look funny.”
She’s chewing minty gum. I can smell it. How can Frieda be so calm? The plane is diving around like a swallow after mosquitoes. My stomach makes its way slowly back towards my row, then the plane banks into a tight turn, and we drift apart again. The ground – actually, the skyscrapers of New York – appear in the window.
“Where did you get that shirt, anyway?” Frieda asks. “It’s too big. Is it your dad’s? And why does it have a picture of a donut on it?”
I don’t answer.
Poor Dad, he’ll probably be upset if we crash. I’m his only child, after all, even though he and Mom are divorced and we only see each other in the summer. Our local radio station back home will make a big deal of it too: Among those believed killed in the New York City plane disaster is Cobourg’s own Alan Dingwall.
My ears are tight enough to explode. Then they do. Ouch.
Veronica wanders by. She’s a special flight attendant who’s been assigned to Frieda and me, seeing as we’re kids flying on our own. Veronica has a great big smile on her face all the time, even when she’s not talking about happy things. Like now. “We’re going down,” she says, smiling happily. “Going down now.”
Down! That’s why my ears are popping. I try to stay calm, but I don’t succeed. “AAAAGH!” I shout. “No! NO! No! Why? Why me?!”
The passengers across the aisle are looking over.
Frieda pats me on the arm. Her grin is wide and mean. Her teeth are white. “She means we’re landing, stupid,” she says.
“What?” Did I hear right? My ears pop some more. My heart is pounding. “We’re not crashing?” I say to Veronica. “We’re going to live?”
Veronica smiles and nods. “You’re going to be fine,” she says. “Would you like some gum?” Her smile seems separate from her face. Like a mask. I wonder if she takes it off at night before going to bed.
“Sure,” I say.
“I have my own,” says Frieda.
Veronica gives me some gum and walks away.
“Want to arm wrestle again?” asks Frieda.
“Nope.” My arm aches from the last time.
“Come on,” she says. “I’ll use my wrong arm. I’ll use only two fingers. You still won’t win, but the match will last longer. Come on!”
I shake my head.
Frieda’s wheelchair falls over.
Frieda is not sitting in the wheelchair when it falls. She’s in a regular airplane seat like me. But she’s usually in a wheelchair. Her legs don’t work very well. They never have, not since she was born. She explained it to me when we sat down together at the start of the flight. Actually, she went on and on about it. I was too scared to pay much attention, but I was happy to hear her voice in the background, talking about muscles and bones that don’t do what they should. Her legs are a mess, is about it. She’s had a dozen operations to fix them, and they’re still a mess. One of her doctors works at The Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto. Frieda flies between New York and Toronto a lot. Her Aunt Mary Lee – I think that’s what she said – lives in Toronto, and Frieda stays with her when she’s getting checked out. She’s flying home to New York City now.
Frieda hasn’t explained why she’s on the flight alone. Her dad is a New York state representative, whatever that is. Sounds important. Maybe that’s why he’s not on the flight with her. She hasn’t mentioned her mom at all. Mostly, she’s been making fun of me, talking about my clothes, my hair, where I live, the way I say words like “house” and “about” and “roof.” Oh yes, and she’s been beating me at arm wrestling. Frieda’s strong – her forearms must be twice as thick around as mine.
It’s been a lot of fun, sitting beside her.
We’re up at the front of the plane, with a wall in front of us. When we were getting seated, Veronica folded the wheelchair up very carefully and stowed it against the wall. With all the swooping and sailing around we were doing right now, the straps that tied the chair in place must have loosened. Anyway, the wheelchair falls onto the rug in front of me.
I get out of my window seat and try to lift the chair back into position. It’s heavy and awkward. Veronica comes up behind me and grabs my arm. Her fingers are white. She’s squeezing hard. Ouch.
“Don’t you see the sign?” she asks. “Keep your seat belt on at all times during the descent.”
“Sorry,” I say.
“He couldn’t lift the chair anyway,” says Frieda, with a sneer.
“The passengers, and their belongings, are my responsibility,” Veronica says.
“Sure,” I say, after a pause. Her smile looks real, but she’s upset. “Whatever you say.”
I climb back into my seat.
“Good,” says Veronica.
Ladies and Gentlemen, this is your captain speaking.
The plane is pointing down. Out the window I see water. My ears pop. The plane corkscrews around again. My stomach is flattened against my spine. My eyeballs almost fall out.
We will be landing at La Guardia Airport in a couple of minutes. It’s eight thirty, and a warm and cloudy summer morning in New York City. Thanks for flying Air Canada. We hope to see you again soon.
The water gets closer and closer. The engine noise, which is loud, gets even louder. I shut my eyes and think of Mom. And Dad at the airport. I think of Miranda, my… well, sort of girlfriend, who promised to write to me every day. And Victor, my best friend, who didn’t. And then there’s a bump and we start to roll. We’re on the ground, and Frieda is yawning. My pulse slows. My eyeballs and stomach settle back where they belong.
The plane trip is over. I don’t ever want to fly again. Unfortunately, I’ve got a return ticket.
We get off last. Frieda is in the wheelchair now, pushing herself forward. Her forearm muscles ripple. The wheelchair is gray leather and chrome tubing, with trekker deluxe on the side, and black plastic grip handles at the back. Veronica stays close beside it. I hold open the doors to the terminal building.
We pass crowds of people waiting to fly out of New York. We pass lines of people waiting to get their hand luggage X-rayed. I did all this back in Toronto, with Mom.
Frieda obviously knows the way. After we pass a line of people waiting to walk through a metal detector, she spins around in her chair and backs into a door marked private. The door opens on a dingy hall with an elevator, which takes us down to the baggage pickup area. This is a big basement of a room, with conveyor belts of suitcases going around and around in tight circles.
Frieda pushes herself to the front of the crowd of waiting passengers. “Out of the way,” she says, in a bored tone of voice, like she’s done this millions of times. “Coming through.”
I follow behind. My clothes are in an equipment bag, which is easy to spot because the team name is printed on the side in big white letters. I lean over, but mistime my reach. My bag slides away. Frieda snickers. When it comes around again, she reaches out one arm and hoists it up.
“It’s the same colors as your shirt,” she says with a laugh. “Who are the Commodores?”
“My soccer team,” I say.
“Soccer,” she says, disdainfully. “What a stupid game. Who’d want a soccer bag?”
I’m worried. I haven’t seen my dad in months, and I’m going to be spending the next week with him. And I’m mad at Frieda. “Soccer players,” I say, quietly. “And, well, the chess team doesn’t get equipment bags.”
Now I feel bad. Of course she doesn’t play soccer. “Sorry,” I say, blushing. With my red hair, a blush makes my whole head look like it’s on fire. She turns away.
Frieda’s luggage is taking awhile. Veronica’s permanent smile is starting to show signs of wear. “Only fifteen minutes until nine o’clock,” she says. She doesn’t say what will happen at nine o’clock.
Across the room is a corridor with a sign that says way out.
“There it is.” Frieda points to a brown and black leather suitcase with gold stitching. It looks like it cost a lot more than my soccer bag.
Veronica leans over the conveyor belt and grabs the suitcase. I pick up my bag. The way out corridor is in shadow. Way out to what? My dad will be at the end of the corridor, waiting for me.
“Oh, look at the sweetie!” I think that’s the first nice thing I’ve heard out of Frieda’s mouth. She points to a police dog on a leash. The dog doesn’t look like a sweetie to me. It looks tough and alert. It sits in one place, swiveling its head around, searching for bad guys. The policeman holding the dog’s leash looks tough too – but not alert. His head is still. He’s staring at nothing in particular. His uniform is different from the ones at home. He looks like a cop on TV.
“I’m not allowed to have a dog,” says Frieda. “But I wish I could. Hi, sweetie!” she calls. The dog looks over, briefly, then goes back to work.
For a second she – Frieda, not the dog – gets this look of real longing on her face. I know the look. I get it too, sometimes. She wants a pet. She wants something to stroke and cuddle, something to talk to and play with. Something to love.
There’s a desk beside the way out corridor. A tall thin guy stands behind it, frowning at us.
“Took your time,” he says. “My shift ends at nine, you know.”
“Sorry,” says Veronica.
The tall thin guy wears a white shirt, with a crest on the pocket. He’s holding a clipboard. “Baggage tags,” he says, in a raspy voice.
Oh, yeah. Mom went over and over this with me. You can’t take your baggage without a tag. I feel for mine in my pocket. Frieda already has her tag out. We hand them over. The skinny guy doesn’t seem to care about my tag. He puts it in his pocket. But he stares at Frieda’s, then at her suitcase.
“This doesn’t match,” he says. He has a long face and a long thin nose. His voice rasps like a file.
“Of course it does,” she says.
He shows her the tag in his hand. It isn’t even the right color.
“That’s not the one I gave you,” she says. “That’s someone else’s tag. You got it out of your pocket.”
“I’m going to have to ask you some questions,” he says.
“That’s someone else’s tag, I said.”
“Are you an American citizen?”
He looks official. Clipboard and everything. If he were talking to me, I’d answer. Frieda doesn’t. She raises her eyebrow. “It’s a mistake!” she says. “Besides, we went through customs before we left Canada.”
He makes a note on his clipboard. His fingers and fingernails are as long and thin as the rest of him. “Are you bringing anything in from Canada?” he says.
“But they asked already.…”
“Better answer,” says Veronica. “Follow the routine. This kind of mistake has happened to me too.”
Frieda sighs. “All right, all right. These Ancient Egyptian earrings,” she says. “My aunt got them for me at the museum shop in Toronto.”
“Ancient Egyptian?” He stares. I stare too. The earrings look like birds.
“Well, they’re not real, course. They’re copies. The hawk is the symbol of Horus.”
We studied Ancient Egypt in school. “Horus the god?” I say, to let her know I know.
“No, Horus the dentist,” she snaps. “Of course, Horus the god. You know a lot of other Horuses?”
“Horus!” His skinny nose twitches towards Veronica. “Isn’t that –” He breaks off, shaking his head.
A tall tanned lady stalks towards us, dragging a suitcase on little wheels. She’s wearing leopard sandals; her dark red toenails look like claws. She tosses her baggage tag onto the desk and stalks away. “Bureaucrats,” she says, making it sound like a dirty word. I watch her all the way down the way out corridor.
My dad will be waiting at the other end of the corridor. He’ll ask what the plane trip was like, and I’ll say it was fine. I won’t be able to tell him how scared I felt. He flies all the time; he wouldn’t understand. Will he think my shirt and soccer bag are stupid? Probably not. He probably won’t notice what I’m wearing.
The skinny guy puts down his clipboard. “And now I’m afraid we’re going to have to search your chair – I mean, baggage,” he says to Frieda. “Could you go into the blue room, please?” He points behind him. Halfway down the corridor is a small blue door with the sign: employees only.
Frieda looks snooty. “You can’t search my baggage,” she says.
“I am a government employee.” His raspy voice deepens. “I have all sorts of powers.”
Sounds like he’s Aquaman. He doesn’t look the part at all.
“My father is a state representative,” she says. “I’ve never been searched before.”
“Don’t worry,” says Veronica. “It won’t take long. I’ll just take Alan to meet his father, and then I’ll come and be with you.”
“I don’t need anyone to be with me,” says Frieda. “I’ll be fine. And I don’t need to have my baggage searched by any government employee,” she adds, glaring.
The conveyor belt goes around and around. The policeman leans against the wall, picking his teeth with the corner of a book of matches. I don’t see the dog.
I grab my bag and make for the way out. Veronica doesn’t have much to say to me, and I don’t have anything to say to her. The noise gets louder. I feel like an athlete, going down the tunnel that leads from the dressing room to the stadium. I get past the blue door, reach the end of the corridor, and stop.
Not a stadium. It’s too dingy, too narrow, too low. But is it ever busy! I see more people, probably, in five seconds, than there are in my whole home town. Thousands and thousands of them – walking quickly, talking quickly, hugging and handshaking, dodging each other like pinballs in a fast-moving arcade game. Even the hugs and handshakes happen fast. I get bumped into from behind by a passenger hurrying by me. He disappears into the moving crowd like a snowflake into a river.
I stand at the end of the corridor and stare around me with a strange feeling in the middle of my chest. Not my stomach this time. I can feel my heart sinking. I stare harder.
I see babies and toddlers and kids and teens and tough guys. I see movie stars and nuns and cowboys. I see people on holiday and on business – old people, sad people, poor people, rich people. I see a familiar face: the skinny guy. He hurries past me into the crowd. I guess his shift is over, and he’s finished searching Frieda’s luggage. I notice that he’s left the blue door open behind him.
My heart sinks further, keeps sinking, and finally goes down for the third time. No matter how hard I look, I can’t see my dad.
He’s not waiting for me. That’s what Mom’s afraid of, and has been ever since Dad mentioned the trip to me. I fight down anxiety like a mouthful of cooked carrots. I hate cooked carrots.