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Flight Control
About the Author: Jacob Aaron Reingold has taught English in Oman, served in the US Navy, and worked in refugee resettlement, carpentry, and food service. He currently lives in Spain.

The man’s eyes devour Elena like lamb shashlik. The flight attendants lock the doors. Elena is tall with green eyes and long black hair, approaching forty. Ever since she was a girl, men have chased her, harassed her, and worse. The recycled airplane air smells sickly-sweet, like a corpse-field. Elena recognizes himor thinks she doesand shudders. It’s been a lifetime. She darts her eyes away and makes sure her children fasten their seatbelts.

Coach passengers herd past her in t-shirts, shalwar kameezzes, and dishdashas. Fleshy and droopy eyed like cattle. Elena’s childrenDaniil, fourteen, and Zarya, seven—settle in. They play a puzzle video game, Daniil patiently helping his sister work through the first level. They smile, and Elena dreads returning home. Back to exile. But all vacations must end, Elena knows. On the screen, she notices the flight from Paris will take them over her homeland, Balgor, which she hasn’t seen in years, and a lump forms in her throat. And at the end, the Sheikhdom looms. The swimming pools, lawns, and endless jasmine of her new country are a mirage over a sand-swept prison. She can practically smell her husband Andrej’s garlicky breath, and his yells echo in her ear. She’s only been with one other man besides him, and the other was worse.

Andrej is at least manageable. He likes feeling that he’s in charge, but he’s simple—manipulatable. Elena has her ways of pulling strings. When she needs to, she can be ruthless. Still, Elena thinks, sighing at her happy children—things go smoother without men.

The leering man hovers in the aisle near her. He’s older now. Grey hair hangs over his wrinkles and his hulking, fieldhand shoulders, but now Elena is sure she recognizes him. Her intestines lurch. She remembers the bodies face down in the mud. He is death, she knows. Her instincts tell her to run, but there’s nowhere to go.

He leans over her.

“I punish you,” he says.

She has a hotel pen in her pocket, to fill out customs forms. She reaches her hand into her blazer for it in case she has to stab him in the neck.

Her son Daniil whips around.

“Who the hell are you?” Daniil asks.

The man notices Daniil for the first time. He squints, his pupils swirling like milk. There’s something wrong with his eyes. He straightens up like a flagpole, his mane scraping the overhead bin.

“Captain Murat Halvani of Balgor Liberation Brigade.”

During the war, they killed thousands of their people. Daniil balls his fist but Elena holds his hand down on the armrest. A flight attendant trots up the aisle.

“This is first class, sir,” she says with a smile, “please proceed to your seat.”

Murat turns toward coach.

“I get you,” he whispers to Elena, then walks back to his seat.

A traveler in the next seat across from Elena looks at her.

“What a creep-o,” he says. He winks at her, and the plane takes off.

Daniil beats his fist against his palm but soon goes back to entertaining Zarya. The engines roar and the Eiffel Tower and high-rises of La Défense fade behind clouds. Rhone farmland unfurls beneath them like a chessboard.

As a girl, Elena attended private school in the city. Summers, though, she spent on her grandparents’ farm. She loved her grandma’s home cooking and folksy wisdom. Elena’s grandfather took her camping, and she never shied away from killing a deer or gutting a fish. Those are the memories of Balgor she cherishes. She hasn’t visited the village since she was 15. At 19 she fled the country. She doesn’t like to think about the years in between—the war.

Scenarios amass in Elena’s head like carcasses. The problem isn’t that she has seen Murat, but that he has recognized her. She pretends to stretch and turns to look for him.

He’s seated beside a young person with a puffy, orange vest and a scraggly beard. They’re hunched over, scribbling. Then, they call a flight attendant.

This story appears in our APR 2024 Issue
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