fiction

In Flight

“I’ve been having a ‘me’ year,” Derek said, although it was closer to two years now since he had finally acknowledged the rampant unhappiness in his life and resolved only to commit to himself in all manners of life.

“I can tell, you look great!” Kelsey said. It was true. Derek’s “me” year provided many successes. He lost weight, earned a promotion at his job, traveled quite a bit (alone) and managed to finish War & Peace after maintaining an off-and-on-again relationship with the Russian tome for over a decade. The successes were nice, but hollow. He kept prolonging the me “year” and eventually discovered his isolation merely replaced one destructive coping mechanism with another.

“Thank you, it’s been good but I needed to come back,” Derek said, he wanted to reintegrate with his friend group and this annual New Year’s party was a good excuse. There were a few people he was hoping to see, but kept an open mind about who he’d reconnect with. Kelsey wasn’t exactly one of his closest friends, but she was incredibly inoffensive. She had the type of unabashed optimism that would be fitting for an animated Disney protagonist, but she was difficult to condemn without sullying yourself; you can’t really criticize a person’s optimism without announcing your own bastardly character.

“You should meet my friend Jill,” Kelsey said and motioned toward another end of the party. “You’d like her, she’s nice.”

They walked through the crowd of people illuminated by multi-colored lights and sparklers. Jill was positioned close to the speakers playing nostalgia-laden 80s tunes, but she had no difficulty projecting over the noise. In fact, she handled most of the conversation on her own. Jill was a 24-year-old veterinarian. She loved animals, dogs specifically, and coffee, and dogs, and astrology, and dogs. She brought one with her. His name was Rusty. They had the same sign (Scorpio). She’d hold him while she talked. Sometimes she’d put him down and use wild hand motions to accentuate the emotion in a story about herself, but then Rusty would come back over and shower her with attention until she picked him up again. She loved Rusty. Her love for animals was so immense she thought maybe she was truly from a different species of human — one that descended from dogs.

“You know, it’s like, those people that say men are from Mars and women are from Venus — right? Well I’m like from — somewhere else,” Jill said.

Derek felt a strong reaction to Jill, but likely not the kind Kelsey intended or Jill would’ve wanted. During his year of exile, he found he valued less and less in the world. Niceness was one of the causalities. It seemed like a character trait that could only be applied vaguely; for strangers with no actual personality. Jill seemed like a nice person. She liked things. She felt love for life. She wouldn’t harm anyone, and maybe that’s why he found her boring. For all of Jill’s niceness, he could only think how nice it’d be to push on her windpipe until she couldn’t talk about dogs ever again.

“Do you think you’d go to another planet,” he asked.

“Me?” Jill clarified without waiting for response “Oh, I mean. Totally. They’re sending those ships eventually, right? I mean, maybe I’ll find more of my people there… Would you go?” Jill opened her eyes wide and sucked on the straw leading to her fruity drink.

“I feel like it would take a lot of self-restraint — you know because…” he searched for the rest of his thought across the room but felt his attention spiral out of control as the woman he hadn’t seen for nearly two years made her entrance to the party. She had silver hair now, apparently having had exhausted the rest of the rainbow. Derek remembered seeing her one last time in her apartment with blue hair, then a few days later announced to the world she was blonde. He knew then it was over.

Jill had taken advantage of Derek’s prolonged silence and continued musing about space-traveling dogs, but he didn’t care. His attention was focused on the silver-haired guest circling the room. He didn’t want to appear scared to look at her and miss an opportunity to acknowledge one another. It was already awkward enough with how they left things. He could tell she felt his presence; she was careful not to wander her gaze in his direction. His stomach turned as her irises danced around him. He felt annoyed knowing they might ignore each other for an indefinite amount of time. Couldn’t she get it over with and face him the way he envisioned in his head? In that exact moment she found his eyes, curled her lips into a smile, and approached.

“Hey you,” she said playfully. He anticipated an affectionate greeting but felt only the embrace of anxiety. “How’ve you been?”

“We were just talking about space travel,” Derek replied after a pause, he didn’t want to bring up the past. “Jill was saying whether she would go to another planet.”

“Totally,” Jill said, retrieving Rusty from the floor.

“How about you,” she asked. “Were you planning on leaving all this behind?”

Derek considered the thought. He had tried. For the past two years he had challenged every aspect of his life to see what would hold. Did he really like anything about his life or was he running on inertia? Nothing escaped his examination and much of it was eviscerated. His friends, his career, his hobbies, and much more was systematically reset. For a long time, this felt exhilarating. As if he had launched from a space probe, feeling the air rush past him as he got closer to unexplored territory that would reveal his true self, but as he descended faster downward he found the only surface waiting for him was rock bottom. Before he started his journey, he would’ve taken a trip to another planet, but now he feared the void he sought to resolve raged inside him still.

“I was saying before, I feel like it would take a lot of self-restraint,” Derek began, searching around the room for the rest of his thought. “Because you’re going to be on another planet eventually, but first you have to live for two or three years on that spaceship with the all the same people every day.”

“Yeah, I’d probably just kill everyone on board,” she said dismissively. Derek’s face lit up.

“That’s what I was going to say!” Derek said with grin. “How can you miss the opportunity to be the first space serial killer?”

“Oh yeah, you’re in history forever if you do that,” she said with a smile. “You’d probably have a cult started in your name too.”

“’Mommy, why are there no astronauts anymore,’” Derek began mockingly. “’Well, honey, there was this one guy…’”

“With the way things are going now, you’d secure the extinction of our entire race, that’s like the most consequential thing you can do with your life” she said.

“Huh,” Jill said defeatedly. “I feel like being one of the first space colonists would be consequential enough on its own.”

“Nah, I’d rather be an intergalactic terrorist,” she said, stifling her laughter.

They laughed at the absurdity of their conversation until Jill used Rusty to excuse herself. Alone with one another, Derek could feel a familiar thrill as their cynical humor propelled them through taboos and the profane. Suddenly the void inside him seemed like an ally, guiding him toward the happiness he had sought. If he closed his eyes and focused he might’ve noticed the sound of air rushing by on his way down, but when he opened them again he could only see the reflection of his best self in the mirror of her approving gaze.

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