Flight Risk, a short story by Elle Boyd at Spillwords.com
Christian Lambert

Flight Risk

Flight Risk

written by: Elle Boyd



Since her official diagnosis of dementia, Gladys has wished to return to her birthplace while she can still remember her family members and neighbourhood landmarks. Her granddaughter has shown her around her old village on the computer, but of course it’s not the same. She wants to breathe country air again, walk the cobbled lane to the family home one more time, feel the uneven stones beneath her feet. She can still manage a few steps on her own, so it is a possibility, especially if she is able to lean on her son for support.

It is just past midnight, but Gladys is not aware of the time. The night sky is startlingly black against the bright deck lights. The moon is a curved sliver. Gladys’ wheelchair is parked amongst the colourful deck chairs, a clunky thing of steel and rubber that her son has difficulty pushing around the cruise ship, so for the most part she is either in her cabin, in the dining room or out on the deck. She would like to visit the lounge and watch the people dance, even if she can no longer dance herself. She would like to poke her head in the casino, if only to see just how much money her son is wasting on those cursed machines. She would also like to buy a mechanized chair, but she has overheard the added mobility could make her a flight risk as her dementia progresses.

The thought of being a “flight risk” when she can barely walk strikes Gladys as funny, but it is also frustrating, and it is also terribly depressing. Sometimes she calls her son by her grandson’s name, the boy who died as a baby in his crib: sometimes his name just slips out even though he died twenty years ago, and she can see the pain on her son’s face but it means nothing at the moment because she has no idea why it would upset him. When her son asks her later if she remembers what she said, Gladys says of course not, because she doesn’t. In fact she will deny she ever said such a thing. This seems to pain him more, and he’s been spending a lot of the trip in the casino.

Gladys assumes her son is still down there, plopping quarters in the slot machines, pretending everything is grand and probably flirting with the cocktail waitresses. She might as well get comfy on the deck; she will probably be here awhile. It is a lovely, clear night and she has her lapghan to keep her warm. The stern appears to be deserted; she could sit out here for hours, celebrity magazine open on her thighs, staring into the darkness and listening to the background rumbling of the engine.

Her solitude is broken by a young couple approaching from the left. She has seen them before: a good-looking couple, but quiet. The woman is very pale and very blonde, very thin and very downtrodden. Downtrodden is the right word: her eyes tend to stay down, on her food, on her hands; Gladys has even seen her boyfriend (husband?) pick and choose her food from the buffet line without a word from her. They have a strange energy, and people seem to give them space: they don’t appear to be friendly with anyone else, and even the waitresses don’t make small talk with them; they simply pick up their half-empty plates and leave.

The man is broad, looks like he lifts weights in the ship’s gym. Big head, buzz cut, muscular biceps, short stride, and has probably never smiled in his life. A waste of a handsome face.

Gladys looks down at her magazine but tries to keep them in her peripheral vision. The girl leads the way, arms crossed over her flat chest, eyes on the deck rather than the black water. Her hair is back in a ponytail. She looks chilly in her little floral-print dress. The boy follows close behind in a pair of khakis and a tight grey shirt. They both glance at Gladys, who keeps her eyes on her magazine. They keep their distance from her.

Their voices are subdued; Gladys can’t hear what they are saying. The boy seems angry about something: his tone is sharp; he pulls on the girl’s arm and they stop along the handrail across from Gladys. They argue quietly for a bit, a long bit. He does most of the talking. The girl looks everywhere but at his face.

A pair of middle-aged women in short skirts walk through, giggling and chattering. Gladys wonders if they are single and whether they have perhaps flirted with her son in the casino. Her mind wanders back to her husband, long dead, who used to flirt with younger women, quite openly in fact. Many of them didn’t seem to mind, he was such a handsome man and such a fluid dancer. Things are so different now than when she was a girl … a girl with pretty dimples and bright eyes … curly pigtails and the frilly dresses Mum used to make for her …

Gladys is awakened by a muffled shriek. Her head jerks up; for a moment she’s not sure where she is. She takes in the dark sky, the bright lights overhead, the gleaming wooden deck. She wonders what time it is and how long she has been out here. Then she focuses on the couple, oh yes, the strange young couple having a quiet argument. It has become physical, she sees; the girl’s feet aren’t touching the ground. Her little white canvas shoes are being lifted up, up …

Gladys makes a choking sound as she realizes what is happening. The man has deftly picked up his girl and her rump is now on the handrail. One of her arms is around his thick neck, but in a swift movement she is over and out of sight.

The scene is frozen for a moment: he stands with hands braced on the handrail, head leaning over and down. Gladys stares at his back, her mouth an O, waves of terror washing over her, her mind going in four directions at once: Did I really just see that? I need to call the police. I’m on a cruise ship.

Please don’t turn around and look at me.

She swivels her head this way and that; the middle-aged women are long gone. Then she hears footsteps coming from behind her. She twists around and there is her son, hair a bit disheveled, a look of contrition on his face. “Sorry Mom,” he says. “I lost track of time.” His hands are on the wheelchair handles; he unlocks the wheel brake with one foot and turns her around.

“Wait …” The magazine falls from her lap onto the deck. She cranes her neck to see the boy, who has already turned away from the rail and is now sauntering along in the opposite direction, one hand in his pocket as if nothing has happened. Nothing at all.

“I hope you don’t catch cold,” her son says. “It’s kind of chilly out here.” He steers her through the automatic door leading to the cabins on their deck.

“Did you see that boy?” Gladys asks. She tries to turn in her chair to look at her son.

He glances down at her. “What boy?”

“The boy with the girl.”

“What? I didn’t see any kids.” He wheels Gladys down the carpeted hall and to their cabin. As he slides the key card into the lock he asks, “Did someone sit with you for awhile out there? Keep you company?” He pushes the chair into the room and pulls the lapghan from her legs. “I’m sorry I left you out there so long. Are you thirsty? Would you like some juice?” He balls the blanket up and tosses it on the foot of her bed.

“No!” Gladys’ face flushes with frustration. “The girl with the boy. The-”

“Shit, I forgot your meds. Hang on.” He disappears into the bathroom. Gladys clutches the armrests of her chair. The glint from the engagement ring on her left hand catches her eye, a ring she hasn’t removed in decades except to have it professionally cleaned and once to have it resized since she has been losing weight. The diamond looks clouded now. She wonders if it’s time for another cleaning. She’d planned on leaving the ring to her granddaughter, but …

Her son returns with her plastic pill organizer and a glass of tepid water from the sink. “There. Down the hatch.” He smiles with satisfaction as she fumbles the night’s pills into her mouth and takes a swallow of the water. “So who sat with you out there tonight?”

Gladys stares at her son, hand automatically rearranging the invisible blanket on her lap. She opens her mouth, but the words she’d planned to say are gone. She has a fleeting image of white canvas shoes against black sky, but it disappears in a blink. Her head droops: suddenly she is so tired, she simply cannot keep her eyes open.

“Alright,” her son whispers. He retrieves the lapghan and spreads it over her legs. Then he removes her shoes and gives her feet a quick massage. “Nap in the chair. We’ll get you in bed later.” He gives her a light kiss on the cheek and gets himself ready for bed. One more day on the high seas and they will be docked in Greenock, Scotland.

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