I was thirty years old when the seaplane T.J. Callahan and I were traveling on crash-landed in the Indian Ocean. T.J. was sixteen, and three months into remission from Hodgkin’s lymphoma. The pilot’s name was Mick, but he died before we hit the water.
My boyfriend, John, drove me to the airport even though he was third on my list, below my mom and my sister, Sarah, of the people I wanted to take me. We fought the crowd, each of us pulling a large, wheeled suitcase, and I wondered if everyone in Chicago had decided to fly somewhere that day. When we finally reached the US Airways counter, the ticket agent smiled, tagged my luggage, and handed me a boarding pass.
“Thank you, Miss Emerson. I’ve checked you all the way through to Malé. Have a safe trip.”
I slipped the boarding pass into my purse and turned to say good-bye to John. “Thanks for driving me.”
“I’ll walk with you, Anna.”
“You don’t have to,” I said, shaking my head.
He flinched. “I want to.”
We shuffled along in silence, following the throng of slow-moving passengers. At the gate John asked, “What’s he look like?”
“Skinny and bald.”
I scanned the crowd and smiled when I spotted T.J. because short brown hair now covered his head. I waved, and he acknowledged me with a nod while the boy sitting next to him elbowed him in the ribs.
“Who’s the other kid?” John asked.
“I think it’s his friend Ben.”
Slouched in their seats, they were dressed in the style favored by most sixteen-year-old boys: long, baggy athletic shorts, T-shirts, and untied tennis shoes. A navy blue backpack sat on the floor at T.J.’s feet.
“Are you sure this is what you want to do?” John asked. He shoved his hands in his back pockets and stared down at the worn airport carpeting.
Well, one of us has to do something. “Yes.”
“Please don’t make any final decisions until you get back.”
I didn’t point out the irony in his request. “I said I wouldn’t.”
There was really only one option, though. I just chose to postpone it until the end of the summer.
John put his arms around my waist and kissed me, several seconds longer than he should have in such a public place. Embarrassed, I pulled away. Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed T.J. and Ben watching it all.
“I love you,” he said.
I nodded. “I know.”
Resigned, he picked up my carry-on bag and placed the strap on my shoulder. “Have a safe flight. Call me when you get there.”
John left and I watched until the crowd enveloped him, then smoothed the front of my skirt and walked over to the boys. They looked down as I approached.
“Hi, T.J. You look great. Are you ready to go?”
His brown eyes briefly met mine. “Yeah, sure.” He had gained weight and his face wasn’t as pale. He had braces on his teeth, which I hadn’t noticed before, and a small scar on his chin.
“Hi. I’m Anna,” I said to the boy sitting next to T.J. “You must be Ben. How was your party?”
He glanced at T.J., confused. “Uh, it was okay.”
I pulled out my cell phone and looked at the time. “I’ll be right back, T.J. I want to check on our flight.”
As I walked away I heard Ben say, “Dude, your babysitter is smokin’ hot.”
“She’s my tutor, asshole.”
The words rolled off me. I taught at a high school and considered occasional comments from hormone-riddled boys a fairly benign occupational hazard.
After confirming we were still on schedule, I returned and sat in the empty chair next to T.J. “Did Ben leave?”
“Yeah. His mom got tired of circling the airport. He wouldn’t let her come in with us.”
“Do you want to get something to eat?”
He shook his head. “I’m not hungry.”
We sat in awkward silence until it was time to board the plane. T.J. followed me down the narrow aisle to our first-class seats. “Do you want the window?” I asked.
T.J. shrugged. “Sure. Thanks.”
I stepped to the side and waited until he sat down, then buckled in next to him. He took a portable CD player out of his backpack and put the headphones on, his subtle way of letting me know he wasn’t interested in having a conversation. I pulled a book out of my carry-on bag, the pilot lifted off, and we left Chicago behind.
* * *
Things started to go wrong in Germany. It should have taken a little over eighteen hours to fly from Chicago to Malé—the capital city of the Maldives—but after mechanical problems and weather delays we ended up spending the rest of the day and half the night at Frankfurt International Airport waiting for the airline to reroute us. T.J. and I sat on hard plastic chairs at 3:00 a.m. after finally being confirmed on the next flight out. He rubbed his eyes.
I pointed to a row of empty seats. “Lie down if you want.”
“I’m okay,” he said, stifling a yawn.
“We aren’t leaving for several hours. You should try to sleep.”
“Aren’t you tired?”
I was exhausted, but T.J. probably needed the rest more than I did. “I’m fine. You go ahead.”
“Are you sure?”
“Okay.” He smiled faintly. “Thanks.” He stretched out on the chairs and fell asleep immediately.
I stared out the window and watched the planes land and take off again, their red lights blinking in the night sky. The frigid air-conditioning raised goose bumps on my arms, and I shivered in my skirt and sleeveless blouse. In a nearby restroom, I changed into the jeans and long-sleeved T-shirt I’d packed in my carry-on bag, then bought a cup of coffee. When I sat back down next to T.J., I opened my book and read, waking him three hours later when they called our flight.
There were more delays after we arrived in Sri Lanka—this time due to a shortage of flight crew—and by the time we landed at Malé International Airport in the Maldives, the Callahans’ summer rental still two hours away by seaplane, I had been awake for thirty hours. My temples throbbed and my eyes, gritty and aching, burned. When they said they had no reservation for us, I blinked back tears.
“But I have the confirmation number,” I said to the ticket agent, sliding the scrap of paper across the counter. “I updated our reservation before we left Sri Lanka. Two seats. T.J. Callahan and Anna Emerson. Will you please look again?”
The ticket agent checked the computer. “I’m sorry,” he said. “Your names are not on the list. The seaplane is full.”
“What about the next flight?”
“It will be dark soon. Seaplanes don’t fly after sunset.” Noticing my stricken expression, he gave me a sympathetic look, tapped his keyboard, and picked up the phone. “I’ll see what I can do.”
T.J. and I walked to a small gift shop, and I bought two bottles of water. “Do you want one?”
“Why don’t you put it in your backpack,” I said, handing it to him. “You might want it later.”
I dug a bottle of Tylenol out of my purse, shook two into my hand, and swallowed them with some water. We sat down on a bench, and I called T.J.’s mom, Jane, and told her not to expect us until morning.
“There’s a chance they’ll find us a flight, but I don’t think we’ll get out tonight. The seaplanes don’t fly after dark, so we may have to spend the night at the airport.”
“I’m sorry, Anna. You must be exhausted,” she said.
“It’s okay, really. We’ll be there tomorrow for sure.” I covered the phone with my hand. “Do you want to talk to your mom?” T.J. made a face and shook his head.
I noticed the ticket agent waving at me. He was smiling. “Jane, listen I think we might—” and then my cell phone dropped the call. I put the phone back in my purse and approached the counter, holding my breath.
“One of the charter pilots can fly you to the island,” the ticket agent said. “The passengers he was supposed to take are delayed in Sri Lanka and won’t get here until tomorrow morning.”
I exhaled and smiled. “That’s wonderful. Thank you for finding us a flight. I really appreciate it.” I tried to call T.J.’s parents again, but my cell phone roamed without connecting. Hopefully I’d get a signal when we arrived on the island. “Ready, T.J.?”
“Yeah,” he said, grabbing his backpack.
A minibus dropped us off at the air taxi terminal. The agent checked us in at the counter, and we walked outside.
The Maldives climate reminded me of the steam room at my gym. Immediately, beads of sweat broke out on my forehead and the back of my neck. My jeans and long-sleeved T-shirt trapped the hot, humid air against my skin, and I wished I had changed back into something cooler.
Is it this sweltering all the time?
An airport employee stood on the dock next to a seaplane that bobbed gently on the water’s surface. He beckoned to us. When T.J. and I reached him, he opened the door and we ducked our heads and boarded the plane. The pilot was sitting in his seat, and he smiled at us around a mouthful of cheeseburger.
“Hi, I’m Mick.” He finished ...