It sounded like a leak in a balloon. It sounded like an exhale. Escaping air. It sounded like the siphoning off of oxygen, up there at 2,500 feet.
It sounded like TSSSSssssssssss
Leonard Darby Jr. listened. He could hear it. He tried to lean his seat to recline but somebody's knees were already rammed into the small of his back and so he tilted just his head. Laying his wide neck on the scratchy gray airplane seat, he looking up at the little round light, dimmed down, and the open air nozzle, lisping away, and the unlit button with the picture of a tiny cocktail glass. He could feel his head get fat with pressure and his ears swell up with wax until the sound of the airplane engine was only a thick buzz. The sound, though, it slipped through and it made him think of a dehydration chamber.
The land air was gone now. The cabin was blimped out with airplane air and it was putting all the passengers to sleep. Except Leonard. Leonard's brain was wrinkling like a plum turning to a prune, he thought, the liquid was being sucked from his skin, raising up layers of little burned bumps, and the color in his pupils was drying up until his eyeballs would be blind white.
This was after the stewardesses had pantomimed disaster. A gay man and an old wide woman and younger one who was really short, all wearing night-sky colored uniforms with a triangle theme, had all stood in the aisle doing the hand motions. The three of them in unison pointed to the line of lights on the floor. The three of them in unison held imaginary masks to their faces. The three of them in unison strapped flotation devices to their breasts and they all pointed at different emergency exits, located in the front, middle and rear of the plane. It looked like they were miming swimming and it looked they were signing along with a Sunday school song that he had never heard.
This was after the pilot had announced the destination, saying what everybody already knew.
This was after his mother had smiled and said she was so proud and be safe and would he be okay. This was after Leonard Darby Sr. had prayed for safe travels standing on the airport sidewalk, putting his wide mechanic's hand on Leonard Darby Jr.'s head and saying, Dear God we pray this trip, this airplane journey across this country, will bring our dear son closer to your son, Jesus Chirst. This was after his mother had called him Little Lenny, even though she knew he hated that name, said it and smiled with a tilted head.
This was after he had wandered into the news stand thinking about buying a Hustler but had gotten too nervous at the black shinny wrapper showing nothing but a blonde girl's head, her eyes half closed and mouth half open, and had purchased instead the latest edition of the New Yorker.
Now the New Yorker was stuck between his fat leg and the arm rest and the magazine cover was stuck to the skin of his thigh. The legs of his shorts were scooting up as he slid down in the seat and the cover of the magazine was stuck to the hairless skin, leaving splotchy images on his leg, images of cats dressed like famous scientists.
Leonard was 17. This was his first time in an airplane. He was fat boy who still went to youth group but didn't believe in Jesus anymore, who didn't know how to pump his own gas but wanted to become J. Robert Oppenheimer. He never smiled because his teeth were crooked and yellow and if he forgot, when he remembered he closed his mouth and clenched his jaw until it hurt behind his ears. He was going to see his older sister in California where she was successful and beautiful and well adjusted. He had asked her if they could go see Skywalker Ranch and she said that was in Northern California and had launched into a speech about cinematography and he had decided not to ask her anything else ever again.
The cloud cover broke and he looked out the little window, out over the edge of the metal wing and the wing's winding turbine and he saw spotty scrub brush in the desert and the unmarked imaginary line that marked the beginning of Mexico. The pilot on the speaker system said where they were going and when they would get there. The pilot on the speaker system said when they got there it would be local time and 98 degrees. The pilot said they were headed into a headwind and he said Mexico was on the left side of the aircraft. Most of the passengers ignored him by sleeping and Leonard didn't hear anything except the sound of escaping air.
It sounded like an old man whistling through his nose.
It sounded like the fluid of a womb had been stuck with a needle and was being drawn out into the suction of a vacuum, leaving Leonard inside the steel stomach shriveling up like an aborted fetus.
Leonard wanted to scream. He tried to scream. But there wasn't any air. His tongue turned popsicle red and he was breathing through his open mouth in short, shallow pants. He could feel his hands withering. He could feel his skin wrinkling and the brain fluid evaporating out of his gray matter and leaving it in tiny little brittle flakes.
His pupils were drying up and his eyeballs were probably totally white.
His sister was supposed to pick him up. She was supposed to wait by the baggage claim. She was going to stand there, Leonard knew, with her weight on one hip and hand on the other, checking her watch and sighing at having to wait for him.
The other passengers would wake up and get their bags. The business-black rolling suitcases would be picked up by men talking into cellphones in cellphone voices. The floral-print samsonites would be picked up by women with white curled hair wearing oversized sunglasses. The backpacks would be picked up by girls in flip-flops and short shorts and tank tops on their way to get flower tattoos and tan at the beach. The other passengers would wake up and get their bags, but nothing that normal would ever happen to Leonard again.
Leonard's bag was blue, royal blue. His bag was new. It was tagged DFW-LAX and it would go around and around and around in circles forever on the conveyor belt at the baggage claim. He'd never make it to the baggage claim. He'd never find his sister and never see California.
He would fumble out of the airplane blind, waving his deformed arms in front of him, bumped around by people and by blank walls. He'd wander around the airport like that saying Jesus Mama Jesus Mama. He'd make moaning noises and he'd bulge his eyeballs out to try to see. Dribble would be coming out of his mouth and everyone would look at him like he had leprosy or nuclear radiation or AIDs. Kids would scream Go away and girls would throw up and scientists would probably dissect his corpse. He would be a freak.