The skin under Harry’s eye felt tight. The knuckled bruises along his cheekbone stung as he returned the smile of the sweet mannered flight attendant greeting the day’s passengers. He wondered what she had thought of his red and blue battered face, sticking out like a sore thumb as he’d ducked through the cabin door.
Finding his row, Harry squeezed past the old man filling the aisle seat and slid into his own. A gravelled voice hit him as he searched for his seatbelt, his ribs screaming as he twisted in his seat.
‘If only I could see the other guy, right?’
Harry’s hand dove for the silver buckle as he looked up to a face held too close.
A hand hung above the armrest, waiting. Harry met it with his own, wincing as Shawn’s strong grip ground against aching bones.
‘Harry. Nice to meet you.’
‘You’re looking a little worse for wear there, Harry.’
‘Well, like you said, you should see the other guy.’
Harry shifted sideways in the seat, leaning his temple against the cool Perspex window.
‘Are you heading to or leaving home?’
Harry gave him a slanting glance, not moving his rested head, ‘Leaving home for my hometown’
Harry heard the man’s sharp intake of breath, readying himself for another question.
A rush of perfume drifted over them, ‘Sir, I need you to do your seatbelt up please.’
Shawn rifled around in his seat, cheeks growing rose red as he apologised to the back of the flight attendant’s head. Thick fingers dug between the seat, yanking out the strap and lengthening it around his waist. He looked over at Harry as the belt clicked home, eyebrows lifted over a nervous smile.
Harry payed little attention as the pre-flight rituals were completed. He watched through the window as the runway disappeared, dropping away with his stomach.
‘So, family reunion?’
Black spots filled Harry’s vision as a turbulent pull tensed and stretched his ribcage, a strange sensation. He shook his head, ‘No… my fathers in hospital.’
‘I’m sorry, son. Is he going to be okay?’
Harry’s face twitched, uncomfortable with the man’s familiarity.
‘Doctors say it could be weeks, days maybe.’
‘Until he goes home?’
Silence sat between them.
‘Well, its good you’re going home to be with him.’
‘Yeah’, Harrys voice turning to a whisper, ‘Yeah it is.’
‘How long’s he been sick?’
‘Years. He’s gotten worse in the last few months. I spent a few weeks with him last month but… I couldn’t stay. It felt like there was nothing I could do but sit and watch. Wait.’
‘It’s hard. Being there at the end.’
Harry studied the look on Shawn’s face, his eyes lost in reflection.
‘You’ve been there? For someone, I mean?’
Shawn nodded, ‘My wife.’
Harry nodded his condolences.
‘So why are you going back?’
Harry turned to the man, considering the clear blue eyes staring back. The man’s face held deep wrinkles, lines created by smiles, frowns and contemplation.
‘Two nights ago, I was sitting on a bar stool. Angry at the world. Angry at myself. I’d sat on that stool every night since I got back. I’d stumble home, pass out and do it all again the next day. Two nights ago, I went to the bathroom. Came back to find someone sitting on my stool. I just lost it. He was bigger but I was angrier. So, I picked a fight. Next day I woke up in a hospital bed. Emergency room. Sounds stupid but for a second I thought I was my father. Waking up…alone. Surrounded by strange people, noises. Cold. I was laying there and all I could think was that I wasn’t where I was supposed to be. That by sitting at that bar I could tell myself I wasn’t running away, that there was nothing I could do anyway… By picking that fight I was punishing myself, for being such a loser. For taking the easy way out. I would have left straight away but they kept me in for observation. Concussion… I spent the whole time arguing with myself, trying to talk sense into myself. Building up my courage, hoping it’s not too late. As soon as I was discharged I came to the airport and now here I am. Going…’
The food trolley rolled past and a voice interrupted, an attendant leaning over to ask Harry if he wanted a meal. Harry’s stomach growled in reply, his body protesting as he reached for the packaged box offered. Shawn declined his.
‘Your father would be proud. I know he’ll take comfort in your being there… It’s never too late, son. You’re going home.’
Harry looked out the window as he swallowed a mouthful, a soft whisper, ‘I’m going home.’