** Wild Card Image **
They’re looking for one malleable passenger to get off the plane, and they’re offering three hundred dollars in travel vouchers.
The money would come in handy, what with the new venture and all, but I’m desperate to get to New York tonight. To get me off this flight, they’d have to drag me up the aisle bleeding from a head wound, like that poor Chinese guy. This is the last flight of the night, and the winter storm of all time is sweeping the continent. If we don’t get this bird off the tarmac soon, Yulemageddon will shut down LaGuardia, and then I’ll be screwed. The man I’ve thought of as my fiancé will slip away like a dream.
My phone rings. It’s him. I’ve changed his ringtone to a festive holiday tune because Christmas is going to be great. We’ll do all the things we used to do, and he’ll remember how much he loves me, and he’ll get back on board with our dream—the one where we get married, move to the San Juan Islands and open an outdoor adventure company. I imagine the orcas gliding beneath our kayaks as we guide our guests to the best whale-watching sites.
My seatmate sings along to the ringtone: ” ‘Jingle bells, Batman smells, Robin laid an egg.’ ” It kind of breaks the mood. “Your sweetie,” she says, more of a statement than a question. I nod and answer the phone.
It’s really coming down in New York, he says. It’s piling up. Couldn’t I just take a cab from the airport?
“Seriously? A cab?” says Miss Nosy-Pants. She must have overheard. “He can’t pick you up? He’s afraid to drive in a little weather? My, my…he must be a very special snowflake.” She examines her inch-long nails, which sparkle with embedded jewels.
She has a point, but I’ve traveled by car, ferry, and shuttle just to get this far, not to mention walking miles through the terminal after the airline changed gates twice. What’s one more cab ride?
“Okay,” I say into the phone. My seatmate makes an exasperated little tsk sound. “See you soon,” I tell the phone. “I love you.”
The plane makes a loud ding, and the flight attendant starts talking. “I can’t hear you,” I tell the phone. “Look, I’ll call you when we land.” I’m not sure what he says in response. I hang up.
The airline needs the seat for airline staff, the flight attendant explains through her little microphone. The snowstorm has messed up all their itineraries, the major hubs are all backed up, and if their off-duty pilot doesn’t get to New York for his next flight, Santa Claus won’t come for hundreds of families.
Too bad, so sad. I need my seat more than they do.
“Three hundred bucks,” says my seatmate. “Ridiculous. Hello? Has anybody told them this is frickin’ Christmas Eve, for God’s sake?”
She gives me a serene look. “I’m Yolanda, by the way.”
“Carol.” I say it reluctantly because I’m not looking to encourage her.
“I mean, give me a break,” she says, glancing at my phone. “Don’t we have the right to expect something a little better? Things can’t just always go their way, can they?” I can’t tell if she’s talking about the three hundred dollars, or if she’s back on the cab thing again.
She reaches into her sparkly carryon bag, and stuff jingles around in there with a light, high-frequency, tinkling sound. Unicorn eyelashes? Angel laughter?
She comes up with something from the shimmering, tinkling bag and offers it to me. “Gum?”
I shake my head no. She unrolls a good eight inches of pink bubble tape and pops it into her mouth.
The intercom comes to life again.
“This is Captain Smith.” Airline pilots always sound so reassuring. “I apologize for the delay. There’s a warning light on our instrument panel that we can’t get to turn off. Probably something as simple as a fuse that needs to be replaced. Our maintenance crew is running some diagnostics. We expect to get it squared away in five or ten minutes, and then we’ll be on our way.”
Good, because I know that what my fiancé is experiencing is just a minor case of cold feet. Pre-marriage jitters. He’s understandably nervous about ditching a sure thing in New York and taking a gamble on a startup venture three thousand miles away. But he’ll come around. He’ll remember our vision: skimming across the water in the morning fog, clamming on a hidden stretch of shore, sipping brandy around a bonfire as the northern lights transform the sky.
Oh, continues the intercom, they do still need one person to give up their seat. The offer is up to five hundred dollars now.
“What a joke,” says Yolanda. “I wouldn’t get off this plane for less than ten thousand bucks. You thought that guy with the broken rib and the bashed-in teeth put up a fuss? Ooh, baby—you ain’t seen nothin’. Let them try to force me off this flight for a measly five hundred bones. Just let them try.”
She blows a bubble as big as my fist. It pops like a firecracker.
* * * * *
Five or ten minutes turns into twenty, then thirty. I send a text: Still at the gate. After a further twenty minutes, he texts back that New York is getting buried. I could just wait and come after the holidays, he suggests.
But I want to be snowed in with you, I text. Yolanda snorts. For the record, I have my phone turned so she can’t see it. I’ll be there tonight, I text. He doesn’t respond. Yolanda crosses one leg over the other and jiggles her foot up and down in irritation.
Her own phone rings. The ringtone is I’m So Excited. She answers, and her side of the conversation is a litany of love talk and special requests. Hey, baby! And I miss you too, baby. And Did you pick up my dry cleaning, hon? And Could you possibly stop at the store on your way to the airport and get me that Amaretto creamer I like? And Love you, too, baby, you know I do.
She hangs up and shows me a picture of a handsome man and three gorgeous children. This paragon of manhood is venturing out into Yulemageddon with his brood to greet Yolanda at the airport. “Well, of course, he is,” she says, although I haven’t spoken. “It’s the least he can do. After all, I’m a goddess, right?” She chuckles and snaps her gum. I notice that her cheeks are covered with face glitter that sparkles softly in the cabin light, and her eyes glow like two flickering votive candles.
I show her pictures of the piece of property I’ve found. It has everything I—no, we—said we wanted: low bank waterfront, enough land for a few rustic guest cabins, killer views. “You can sit and watch the orcas breach close to shore,” I tell Yolanda.
“Orcas, nice,” she says. ” ‘Seek spiritual guidance.’ That’s what orcas mean.”
“I thought they meant a big event was coming.”
The thing is, he was supposed to be coming out to be with me for Christmas, not the other way around. I’d been the advance scout, coming west ahead of him and searching for months until I’d found the perfect place. He’d said he loved it. I’d negotiated a price. We’d agreed that I should put everything in my name until after the wedding; it was just easier that way.
Now all the inspections have been done; everything is a go. The closing is set for January, but he hasn’t even seen the place yet. In October he had a crazy work schedule. At Thanksgiving, he had to help his brother move. He still has a couple of weeks to give his yea or nay before the feasibility period expires. Time’s a-wastin’.
At last my phone dings. Truth time: He’s worried about this whole thing, he admits. He doesn’t want to be stuck in the kitchen, frying up eggs for a bunch of spoiled-rotten vacationers.
I can do most of the cooking, I text back.
And then there’s all the laundry, he says. Do I have any idea what weekend guests do to sheets?
Fine, I text. I can do the laundry. It’s no big deal.
Yolanda lets out a groan that makes all the passengers within three rows turn and stare. “This is getting old,” she says, and there’s a chorus of agreement from our traveling companions.
Captain Smith comes on again. “Folks, I’m sorry,” he says in his reassuring voice, which fails to reassure. “We’re going to deplane everyone. We need an engine part, and it’s on the way, but it could take just a little while to get here. You’ll all be more comfortable waiting inside the terminal.” People grumble, but what can we do? We gather up our stuff and start to file out.
“Pay no attention to the small amount of black smoke as you exit the aircraft,” says Captain Smith. “It’s just a bit of oil that leaked out of the left engine as we were testing it.”
The acrid stench of burning oil and hot metal fills my nose as I step onto the jet bridge.
* * * * *
The gate agent announces that the part is being installed right now, and the new departure time is 3:00 p.m. But they still need that one volunteer. Their one thousand dollar offer now includes some cash, future upgrades, and gift cards from their partners. Nobody’s biting, though. Have I mentioned it’s Christmas Eve?
New York and I begin a text flurry that soon turns into a blizzard. As it goes on—and on, and on—I see the kayaks getting covered with layer after layer of snow. Six inches, twelve inches, until you can’t tell they’re kayaks at all. They could be beached whales, their outlines blurred to nothingness on a frozen shore.
Yolanda glides past, turning to cock her head at me.
“You know what your problem is, girlfriend?” she says. “You don’t play your cards right. Look at you—smart, capable, pretty. And you’ve got this thing sewn up! Hello? The contract is in your name, remember? What’s Mr. Jingle Balls bringing to the table?”
For some reason, she has pictures of orcas pulled up on her phone. A random passenger, peering over her shoulder, says,
“Ooh, killer whales. I love those animals! They stand for family, you know.”
“I know,” says Yolanda.
“And romance,” says someone else.
“I heard they mean harmony,” says a third traveler.
“That’s right,” says Yolanda.
This is getting to be a little much. I say,
“So they stand for family, romance, harmony, spiritual guidance, and a big event coming?”
“So basically, they stand for whatever I want them to stand for.”
Yolanda flashes a huge grin. “Now you’re catching on, sister.”
I send one more text: Did you ever want this at all?
My phone plays music: Jingle bells, jingle bells, jingle all the way. I answer.
Look, he says. That’s not the only piece of land in the San Juan Islands. Maybe this one just wasn’t meant to be. I remind him that it’s the only one that has everything we want, that we can afford, that’s available right now. He says the whole thing just feels a little rushed to him.
Rushed. We’ve talked about this for two years.
Across the way, Yolanda takes a clip out of her hair and shakes out an insane mane. She fluffs it with her hands, pulling it away from her head until it’s like a giant cloud. I’m sure I’m just seeing the effect of the color-changing lights on the pre-lit Christmas tree at our gate, but it looks as if her hair is changing and swirling in majestic roils of pink and green and lavender and red. She looks like something that would appear in the sky while I lay on the beach next to a bonfire and peered up in gobsmacked wonder.
This isn’t the only choice, says the voice from New York. Something else will come along. Something better.
You got that right, brother, says Yolanda. I look around, but now she’s nowhere in sight. How does she do that?
Outside the plate glass window, I see what looks like—no, it couldn’t be—yes, it is—orange flames shooting from both the plane’s engines. A collective gasp rises from the assembled passengers. Fire trucks come screaming toward our gate.
“I’ve gotta go,” I say to my phone.
* * * * *
I’m standing in front of the podium at the new gate. A substitute aircraft has magically been conjured from somewhere. The flight will board as soon as that one volunteer comes forward.
I’m pissed, and I’m brokenhearted. I don’t think I want to marry someone who makes a habit of yanking the rug out from under me. Someone who promises and promises, and then doesn’t show up. Someone who thinks it’s fine if I just take a cab from the airport; who doesn’t care if I just wait and come after the holidays. Someone who would bury our dream on a cold beach in December.
No, they’d have to drag me up the church aisle kicking and screaming, with a bloody nose and two teeth knocked out, and I still wouldn’t say “I do.”
The airline has raised its offer again, and even though it’s more than six times the original amount, a figure that would have made me faint not so long ago, suddenly I somehow feel I could ask for more.
“Two thousand dollars?” I say to the agent with what I hope sounds like offended incredulity. “I think you can do a little better than that.” She hesitates. “Think of all those families waiting for their loved ones,” I continue. “This is Christmas Eve, you know.” My heart is trying to pound its way right up my throat, and I hope I’m not blushing. Yolanda is a hundred feet away at the snacks concession. Her hair has gone back to normal, but I know she’s watching.
“Two thousand dollars is already more than we usually offer,” says the agent.
“Usually, yes. But tonight, is different, isn’t it?”
She pulls a little frowny face, then steps aside and speaks into her headset.
“You haven’t exactly been overwhelmed with volunteers,” I call over to her, raising my voice. “But here I am. I’m standing right in front of you.”
I catch Yolanda’s eye from a hundred feet away.
Show ’em what you’re made of, she says.
The agent steps back to the podium.
“Here’s the deal,” I tell her. “It’s the last flight of the night, it’s snowing all over creation, and you’ve got no other takers. I’d be willing to give up my seat for $15,000.”
This, I know, is utterly outlandish. But I’m trying something new: starting high.
Across the way, Yolanda raises one eyebrow. Not a bad gambit, kid.
The agent lets out a little yelp.
“Out of the question,” she says.
The other passengers press in a little closer. I have the distinct feeling that, at $15,000, there would be a lot of takers. But it’s not their turn. It’s my turn. And I’m in the middle of a negotiation.
“Fine,” I say. “I’ll settle for $10,000.”
The agent looks horrified. But then something inside her seems to crumble. Maybe she understands she’s not holding all the cards. Maybe, oh, I don’t know, maybe she’s decided this would not be a good time to involuntarily bump a passenger, even though she could legally do that for a lot less money than I’m asking. Maybe she understands that her industry has some work to do if they want to restore trust. She drums her fingers on the counter.
“And I’d be happy to comp you a free weekend at my new outdoor adventure camp,” I add, whipping out my phone and showing her the pictures. Because—hey—Yolanda is right. All the paperwork is in my name. I don’t have to wait forever for anyone else’s yea or nay.
“Obviously, I can’t go that high,” says the agent. “But . . . ”
“You can bring a guest.”
“I can’t accept anything like that, ma’am,” she says, pursing her lips. But she takes a closer look at the pictures as I scroll through them.
“Of course not,” I say. “Here, take my card, at least.”
And as I stand there, stuffing my heart back down into my chest cavity where it belongs, she comes up with a number that, while well below $10,000, is far beyond my wildest dreams.
I pause as if considering. Finally, I nod, soberly.
Yeah. I’ll take that deal.
A heavenly choir bursts into song. Joy to the World! It turns out that carolers in Victorian garb stroll through SeaTac airport on Christmas Eve. While the agent fills out the paperwork, I send one last text to New York, and I notice that my skin is changing colors in the reflected light of the pre-lit tree. What am I made of? Rubies and emeralds, apparently.
I feel like Santa. Thanks to my enormous sacrifice—getting what I wanted all along, in other words—Christmas will come for hundreds—no, thousands—of families. Maybe millions. That’s right. I’m that mythic.
As they call for Group 1 to begin boarding, I walk through the terminal with my paper voucher jingling in my pocket. A new carol pulls me toward the main part of the terminal—”Silver Bells” this time. My skin, I realize, has grown a million shimmering platelets that emit a faint ring-a-ling, ting-a-ling as I walk. I pass face after face wearing smile after smile. It’s clear that other people can hear my silvery music, too.
My phone rings. I turn it to airplane mode.
After working with concrete and pastels for years, I’ve started writing contemporary
fiction about folks who tend to screw up at least as much as the rest of us, which is part of their special charm. All of it, actually. They keep stepping into deep holes and then
having to claw their way back out. While they careen from one questionable decision to
the next, the rest of us stand helplessly by, wondering if we should call an ambulance or
the cops or somebody. Sooner or later they reemerge topside, muddied, bloodied, and
changed forever. If only they had listened to me in the first place! But, alas—I am not the
boss of them.
I blog about them, and about my latest writing project (a YA novel) at
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