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When she got to the plane that night, Cate limped over the threshold, and could barely smile at the flight attendant who welcomed her. But she did smile – Cate was nothing if not Midwestern, and polite. She hated flying, though, and she gripped her red Minnie Mouse phone tight to her ear. “Yes, bunny, I have the phone you chose.” And after a pause, “Yes, I love you. I’m on my way home. I’ll pick you up at Nai Nai’s, but it will be late. You probably won’t even wake up.” Then, after another moment, “Yes, bunny, we’ll have breakfast together tomorrow.”
The flight was full, and Cate knew just where she was sitting. She had an exit row seat – not because she needed the leg room. At 5’5”, she wasn’t that uncomfortable in a regular seat. The need for an exit row seat was driven by her own superstition. If she was in an exit row, it would be a safe flight. Period.
The seat next to her was empty, even though there were only a few minutes before takeoff. Cate carefully retrieved her laptop before shoving her tote under her seat, and she sat down to write. She had a fierce story bubbling up inside, and even though she didn’t like to write on planes, she felt compelled to start typing. Her fingers shook on the keyboard as she gratefully let the words pour out. Typing was strange too – normally she wrote longhand. The feeling of that ache in her shoulder, and her hand curling around the pen meant that she was truly hearing the story and setting it down. Within a few keystrokes, her fingers became more sure on the keyboard, and her mind was engaged. She felt that familiar sensation of tunnel vision, as if her mind was focusing on something very far away but that she knew was there. Her eyes were unfocused and her hair was tumbling out of its ponytail. She was, in a word, transported.
Transported – the reason she had been writing, every day, for every minute she could snatch between kindergarten, nursery school, and chicken nugget dinners, since her husband died. It was a ticket out, a way around, a departure from the rest of her life. Alone. The mother of two little girls. No family, except her mother-in-law (former mother-in-law? Ex-mother-in-law? What do you call the mother of your deceased husband?) who disliked her. Dislike was too kind a word. Cate remembered the first time she met Nai Nai, the way Nai Nai’s brown eyes, which seemed so friendly, like a dog’s, looked her up and down. Cate blushed, setting off her pale white skin next to Michael’s gorgeous olive complexion. Nai Nai turned away from her and said to her beloved only son, “She staying for dinner at my home?”
And so Cate’s brain, long accustomed to switching over into reverie, was quickly engaged. She did not on a conscious level recognize the person who sat down next to her in the exit row, row 23, of flight 3607, New York to Minneapolis. She was typing, typing, typing, and did not feel the person’s eyes on her face or on her body. She did not notice anything until a deep, quiet voice chipped through the writing fog. “Cate?”