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Issue #1: Fiction

Katherine Pearl

Unscheduled Departure (an excerpt)

       Some days, I knew he was dead. I could picture the scattered plane wreckage under a thick canopy of evergreens—a mostly intact wing, the fuselage broken in two like a loaf of French bread, and his body, lying face down on the forest floor.

      Maybe he’d run out on us. Flown away to a tropical island to make love on the beach and sip piña coladas with some long-legged bimbo.

         That was the most likely scenario, as my grandfather kept reminding me. “Hope for the best but prepare for the worst, Sarah,” he’d say, squeezing my shoulder with his leathery hand. Then he’d slip on his green-billed cap and leave me on the porch where I’d contemplate other explanations for my dad’s prolonged absence.

        Maybe he’d run out on us. Flown away to a tropical island to make love on the beach and sip piña coladas with some long-legged bimbo.

        He’d always been a shameless flirt. Even the gray hair and Santa Claus silhouette he’d acquired hadn’t stopped him from inflicting his charms on young women like his receptionist, Mindy.

        “What have we got lined up for tomorrow?” he’d ask before leaving the office. Mindy would toss her poofy blonde hair over her shoulder and run a pink acrylic fingernail down the appointment list, reading off the patients and their various oral maladies.

        “That doesn’t sound like any fun,” he’d say. “How about the two of us play hooky instead?” If I was in the room, he’d wink to make sure I knew he was joking. “The plane’s fueled up and I can get us to Kansas City in three hours flat.”

        Mindy would refuse in some cute way, and Dad would sigh melodramatically and say, “I had to try.”

        Mindy had rescheduled all of Dad’s appointments the first week, and referred patients to other dentists in the second, so I knew he hadn’t taken off with her. I thought maybe he’d been lured away by one of those Miss Kentucky types who were always getting their teeth cleaned and capped.

        I figured she had to be good looking because my Mom was still attractive. She’d gotten a little dowdy during my high school years, but while I was away at college, she’d slimmed down, dyed her gray hair a velvety shade of burgundy, and started wearing eye-liner and lip gloss on a daily basis. She’d even poached a denim skirt and a wrap dress from the clothes I’d left behind.

        I hated picturing Dad with another woman, but unlike my grandfather’s theory, it offered hope for reunion. So did my favorite scenario—Dad had crashed and been injured, but was crawling his way back to us. At least once a day, I’d find myself staring at the trees on the edge of our property, imagining my father bravely pulling his limp body along one handful of earth at a time, surviving on rain water and grubs like that soldier who was shot down in Bosnia.

        I know I wasn’t the only one holding out for a miracle. When I moved Mom’s tote bag off the kitchen table one evening, I spotted some articles printed from the internet about people who’d survived for weeks trapped in rubble or wounded in the wilderness. None of them had been gone as long as Dad, though.

        I didn’t notice Bob at first. He blended in with the sheriff’s deputies, search party coordinators, family members, and friends who infested our house the first few weeks after Dad flew off into oblivion.

        Bob was my parents’ lawyer, and their friend, according to my mother. As people ran out of comfort and hope, their visits dwindled, except for Bob. He came by at least twice a week with papers to sign and issues to discuss. Apparently dying is a cut-and-dried legal concept, but disappearing is “a whole other can of worms,” as Bob phrased it.

        Bob was a lean guy, tall but not towering, probably about five-ten. His hair was black except for two patches of silver near each temple. He usually wore suits, but when he picked me up that Sunday, he had on a blue golf shirt with khakis and loafers. Bob and I were going to the Cecilia, Kentucky, airport to clean out Dad’s locker. I’d volunteered to go by myself, but Mom didn’t think that was a good idea, so Bob generously offered to accompany me.

        “Are you still planning to go back to college after Christmas?” he asked as we turned on to the highway.

        Dad had disappeared at the beginning of August, and they hadn’t called off the search parties when Texas Christian University’s fall term began, so I had withdrawn from my classes.

        “Yeah, I’m going back, although I’ve been thinking about transferring somewhere closer to home,” I said.

        “You don’t want to be a horny toad like your parents?” he asked, grinning.
I smiled even though I’d heard that mascot joke so many times—it stung like candy on bad a tooth.

        “I liked it there okay, but it’s really far.”

        “That’s true, and I know your mother would prefer you be closer to home, especially now.”

        I wondered if she’d told him that, or if he’d just deduced it during their paper-signing sessions.

        “You know UK’s my alma mater,” he said, his shiny blue eyes darting from the highway to me. “When the time comes, I can put in a good word for you with the law school dean of admissions.”

        Apparently, he and my mother had been discussing my future because I’d certainly never mentioned my plans to him.

        “I’m not going to practice law,” I said, trying to make it clear that I did not want to be like him. “It just seems like a good jumping off point for a career in government, or politics, or something.”

        “It does offer a lot of options,” he said. “And once you get through law school, anything else you tackle will seem easy.”

        Bob spent the rest of the drive telling me why I had to major in political science or history because no matter what the law school brochures said, those were the only two majors that the faculty would respect.

        Finally, we arrived at the airport access road, a one-lane strip of pavement that snakes across a fallow field to the parking lot. The wind whipped at our clothes as we walked to the office. Hank Wickens, a hairy, teapot-shaped man, was behind the counter when we entered.

        “Hey there, sweety,” he said, waddling toward me. “How you doing?”

        He wrapped his big meaty arms around me. I wanted to scream, but instead I stiffened and kept my hands at my sides. I don’t know why tragedy gives casual acquaintances the right to invade your personal space.

        Hank released me to shake Bob’s hand. “Let me go get that invoice we talked about and then I’ll take you all out to the hanger,” Hank said before waddling into a back room.  

        The door to the hanger opened, creating a vacuum that rustled papers on the counter. A young guy wearing blue coveralls strolled into the room. The name patch on his chest said “Mechanic” and he had all the hallmark traits—a dirty red baseball cap, greasy hands and face, and a greasy metal something in his right hand.

        “Hey, Hank,” he said, approaching the counter. “I need you to order a new magneto for a Piper Seneca.”

        “Who’s it billed to?” Hank yelled from the other room.

        “Dr. Kline.”

        I’d seen the mechanic before but never this close. He was always across the hanger, under a plane, or bent over an engine. I thought he was younger than me, but the delicate creases beneath his eyes made me realize he was at least my age, if not older. He had a dark tan, either that or his skin had absorbed so much grease it had permanently tinted. His stride was loose, almost gangly, but he had a sturdy frame and sharp features. A scar cut through his right eyebrow, and when he smiled, I noticed one of his eye-teeth overlapped its neighbor.

        As he passed me, my whole body blushed, and I wished I’d worn makeup and styled my brown hair instead of just pulling it back with a scrunchy.




Katherine Pearl earned her BA in English at Brescia University and received Brescia's 1999 Award for Achievement in Original Fiction.  She recently completed her MFA in creative writing at North Carolina State University.  Her work has previously appeared in Open 24 Hours and The Transylvanian.  A native of Kentucky, she currently resides in Raleigh, North Carolina, and divides her writing time between short stories and a novel in progress.  "Unscheduled Departure" was a finalist in the 2007 North Carolina State Short Story Contest judged by fiction author Jim Shepard. 

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