A Flight to the Never Mind
A Flight to the Never Mind
“Everyone, meet Astrid,” Jax announced, after yanking open the door to the dusty blue van.
Astrid peered in. She saw three children, but only heard one voice reply, “Hi Astrid.”
The cheerful voice came from the little boy sitting in the back. He was about her age, small frame, with white blond hair and ocean blue eyes. “I’m Owen.”
She waived timidly.
Jax looked over his shoulder. He knew he didn’t have much time, but he didn’t want to scare Astrid any more than she already was by hurrying her along. “Go on, little one. It’s okay,” he said, kindly. “They won’t bite. I promise.” Jax held out his hands and Astrid raised her arms, allowing him to lift her into the van.
Now that she was fully inside, she could see the other two children. One, a girl—older, around ten. Painfully frail, with short bushy hair. The other, a boy Astrid’s age, round, plump with curly red hair. They looked miserably hot, like they had been riding around in that van for hours. And since neither of them had spoken to her, she decided to sit beside Owen. The only one who had said a word to her and the only one with a smile on his face.
She maneuvered her way to the back of the van, toward the boy with the beaming smile. His legs were really thin—too thin for the rest of his body. Just behind him, Astrid could see parts of a metal contraption that she assumed was his wheelchair.
As soon as Astrid sat down, Owen’s eyes turned dreamy. “You’re beautiful.”
“She looks like a boy,” the plump one said. “What’s wrong with your hair?”
“Shut up! It’s trendy,” snapped Owen. “Don’t listen to him, Astrid. That’s Grant. He’s a grouch.” He chuckled. “Grant the Grouch. That’s funny.”
“You’d be a grouch too if you’d been torn away from your family and forced to ride around in this big, dumb, stupid van.”
The bushy haired girl finally spoke, rather, she signed the words, “We’re all in the same boat.”
Astrid’s eyes lit up. She signed back. “You sign too?”
The girl nodded.
“That’s Lyric,” Owen added. “She can’t talk and she’s deaf, but she can read lips.” He looked at her purple cast. “You broke your arm?”
“Duh! No, she’s just being trendy,” said Grant.
“I meant, how…” Owen said quickly, feeling foolish for his choice of words. “How did you break your arm?”
Just then, she heard the door up front slam shut and the van grumbled to life. They lurched forward and were on their way. Astrid looked back and, through the small square window, she saw the familiar sights of Daisy Street begin to shrink from view. Waves of sadness washed over her. Already she was missing Uncle Russ, and the chickens, and the trees, and the mud pies.
A warm sensation found its way to her hand. She looked down and saw that Owen was holding her hand. “It’ll be okay, Astrid. I’m right here with you.”
Even though she didn’t know him, she felt comforted.
“Watch it, Romeo.” Jax warned, glaring at Owen through the rearview mirror. “Keep your hands to yourself.”
He quickly dropped Astrid’s hand.
“Aw! Let him hold her hand, it might shut him up,” said Grant. “I mean, he’s been flapping his lips ever since we picked him up.”
“I can’t help it if I’m friendly,” Owen said, not at all phased by Grant’s glower. “You want me to be all mean and yell at everybody?”
Grant thought it over. “Actually, yes. Yes, I would like that, Sunshine.”
The whole scene made Lyric snicker.
Grant didn’t find anything funny. He just groaned and declared, “I’m hungry!”
“Yes, child, you sang that tune to me already,” said Jax. “What happened to the fruit and crackers I put back there for ya?”
“He ate all of it,” Owen spoke up, with a little bitterness—the first note of any anger from this one.
“No way! You had some too!” said Grant.
“Yeah, me and Lyric had like four crackers between us. You ate the rest and the berries.”
Lyric signed along, emphatically agreeing with Owen. Echoing every word.
Jax sighed. “Hold on children. One more stop to go.” He made a hard right and they were are tossed to one side of the van.
The one more stop was to pick up twin boys. Blue and Teal. Born premature and blind, they had been at a facility for the past two years. Astrid would later learn that the kitchen staff had arranged for Jax to come and get them because the guards were so cruel to them. Blue and Teal weren’t identical twins, but they had the same shyness, the same quiet demeanor. The same dingy, gray, North Ward uniforms. The same scared look on their faces when Jax herded them into the van.
Owen, the social coordinator, jumped right in with the introductions, adding a little bit of backstory with each name. “…and this is the beautiful Astrid. She doesn’t talk with her mouth, but she says a lot with her eyes.”
Astrid shook her head, briskly.
“Yes, you do. See? You just did it right there. Your eyes are saying, ‘this boy is bananas.”’
Astrid started to laugh, but quickly caught it, by covering her mouth.
Grant perked up. “Bananas? I’d love a banana right about now.”
The van erupted with laughter from the other children, until they felt a subtle rocking, as Jax climbed back into the van.
“That’s it,” Jax announced. “Now, we’re ready to go.”
“Go where?” asked a very irritated Grant.
Jax bit his tongue, choosing not to answer that question again. Instead he swore and fought with the ignition until, at last, it revved up. They were on their way.
Thankfully, “where” was not too far away. Just a twenty-minute ride, over a very bumpy, twisting, narrow road.
Oceali Airfield North. Jax had to admit, he was glad to see the sign. Between the heat and the whiny kid in the back, he would be happy when this leg of the journey was over. He drove right past the gate. No need to show a badge or ID. Only a few planes used the airfield. Oceali was no longer a tourist hotspot. There were a few shipments and only a handful of medical personnel that used this field in any given week. Airfield East was slightly busier, used by the more affluent citizens of Oceali. Airfield South was exclusively for the royal family. And Airfield West closed down years ago, overrun by rising tides.
Airfield North should have been shut down too, due to lack of use. The Kassan family, one of the wealthier families on the island—and also very loyal to the Underground—bought the airfield to be used for their import-export business, which was really a cover for its true purpose. Jax only had to call them the day before, so they could fuel up the jet, falsify some documents and make the necessary arrangements to ensure safe passage.
It had always worked like clockwork. So, there was no reason to doubt it would be that way this time too. And it was.
There was a cascade of gasps and excited whispers when the children finally caught glimpses of the plane.
“Oooh! Are we going up in an airplane?” one of them yelled from the back.
“We sure are.” Jax pulled the van right up alongside the Cessna aircraft and started barking out orders. “All right, listen up little people…We just have a little further to go. Let me get us loaded up and we’ll be on our way, okay?”
They nodded in unison, hanging on his every word, just waiting for the signal. For him to say “go” and they would pile on to the magnificent machine.
“When I put you on the plane, buckle up and don’t touch anything. Ya hear me?”
“Good!” he said, sternly, then his eyes lit up when he said, “Now, who wants to go for a ride?”
The van rocked with cheers.
Blue and Teal climbed aboard first. They felt their way among the seats until they reached the last row and sat down. The plane was divided into three rows of two-seaters on the left side and three rows of single seats on the right. The twins took the two-seater in the back. Lyric took the single seat across the aisle from them. The other children waited outside for their turn to be seated, while Jax carried Owen and gently placed him in the next two-seater.
“Thanks, Mr. Jax.”
“Can you hurry up? It’s hot,” Grant complained. Now that they were out of the van, Astrid could see that his left arm was far shorter than the right. She had been wondering what his deficiency was—other than being annoying. “And this smell is making me sick.”
“It’s probably just the jet fuel,” Jax replied then mumbled, “Or all the crackers and berries you ate.” Then he turned and said sweetly, “Do you want to sit next to your new friend, Astrid?”
Astrid looked at Grant who was starting to turn green and then at Owen, whose lovey dovey grin was making her nauseous. A tough decision. She pointed to Owen.
“All right, in ya go!” He scooped her up and set her feet down on the carpeted floor of the plane.
Owen smiled and asked, “Do you want the window seat?”
That was nice of him. Astrid smiled politely and shook her head.
Last to get on board was Grant. Jax tried to help him, but the boy just brushed his hand away. “I am more than capable of climbing up three steps, thank you.”
Jax sighed, “Buckle up, everybody,” as he disappeared from sight.
Everyone seemed to manage their buckles rather easily, except Astrid. Even Grouchy Grant managed to stop complaining long enough to get buckled in. She had been able to buckle herself in Russ’ car, but, with one hand, this one seemed to be fighting against her.
“Here.” Owen reached over and managed to click it in two simple moves.
She mouthed the words, “Thank you.”
“You’re welcome. Have you ever been on a plane before?”
Astrid reached into the blackness of her memory and couldn’t recall ever being on a plane. She shook her head.
“I have,” Grant interjected, as if someone had asked him. “Plenty of times. We used to take vacations all over the world.”
“All over the world? Really?” said Owen, pretending to sound impressed. He leaned into Astrid and tried to keep their conversation more private this time. “I was on a plane once. When I was a baby. My mom said they took me to this special doctor to see if he could fix my legs. She said I cried the whole time. Of course, I was too little to remember.”
“My parents flew the doctors in,” Grant inserted himself into the conversation once again. “Doctors from Asia, Africa—”
“Lunch!” Jax announced and Grant’s list was cut short.
Jax handed out white cardboard boxes to each of his passengers. “Blue…Teal…” One by one the boxes found their way to their rightful owners, who greedily tore them open.
Teal took a deep breath and said, “Yes! My favorite.” Just from its scent, he could tell the box contained thick slices of ham, cheese and apples. He turned his head in his brother’s direction. “What did you get?”
Blue waived his box in Teal’s direction and let him inhale the smell of steaming hot chicken pot pie. “My favorite.” How long had it been since he had had a pot pie? Now everyone was eager to see what was in their boxes.
“Tacos!” Owen cheered. “I love tacos.” He looked back at Lyric and let her read his lips. “Is that your favorite, Lyric?”
She nodded, her face already covered in strawberry ice cream.
Why hadn’t it melted? Astrid thought. It must’ve been sitting in that hot van for hours. Why was Blue’s pie steaming hot? How was any of this possible? Then she remembered Jax and his legs stretching and a shrinking as needed. Was he a magician?
Her train of thought was broken by a weird gurgling sound. She looked over at Grant, who was shoveling mounds and mounds of chocolate candy into his mouth with his dominant hand. She assumed that was his favorite.
“Astrid.” Jax set a box on her lap. Her heart leaped, picturing a pile of Uncle Russ’ cookies waiting for her to devour them. But they weren’t there. No chunky chocolate cookies. No cookies at all. Instead she found two yellow cupcakes, glistening with white icing. She leaned in a little closer and took a sniff. Lemon.
“Is that your favorite?” Owen asked, with a mouth full of chicken tacos.
Astrid shrugged her shoulders.
Owen replied, “It has to be. Everyone else got their favorites.”
“Who cares,” said Grant. “Eat it. Or will.”
Astrid took that threat seriously. She broke off a piece of lemon cupcake and hurried to shoved it into her mouth.
Delightful. Light and moist. Tangy and sweet. A tiny piece of heaven in her mouth. How did they know she would like it? —Love it. How did they know that this would be her new favorite? How did they know that she would finish off the first cupcake in three bites? How did they know? And who were they anyway?
Jax finished putting the last of the bookbags, suitcases and shopping bags onto the plane. Finally, he slipped Owen’s wheelchair onto the small space between the passengers and the cockpit.
When they saw him again, he was climbing into the pilot’s seat.
“You’re flying the plane too?” asked Grant.
“That’s why they call me Jax Offalltrades.” He fired up the plane’s engines and they could hear the whirl of the propellers starting to turn.
“Hey! Can I sit up there with you?” Grant asked, while licking the chocolate off of his fingers.
Jax smirked. Looking at the annoying boy, with the chubby cheeks and the chocolate covered fingers, he suddenly didn’t seem so annoying anymore. But the thought of going the next hour and ten minutes with Grant as his copilot, getting chocolate all over his dials and levers? “Maybe next time, kid. Maybe next time.”
Soaring among the clouds felt like a dream—literally a dream. Astrid fell asleep in Uncle Russ’ car last night and just a few hours later she was flying in a plane, for the first time ever, with a bunch of strangers, on her way to some unknown place. It was part dream and part nightmare, because she had no idea what was waiting for her when this plane landed. But Uncle Russ assured her it would be good, and she trusted Uncle Russ. Besides, no one else seemed worried. Everyone else was just enjoying the ride. Except Grant. He was nauseous from the moment the plane lifted off. All the candy he had stuffed down his throat was trying to force its way back up. He just leaned his head against the window and groaned the whole time. “Ugh! When are we going to get there?”
“Won’t be much longer now, kid. Hang in there,” Jax yelled over his shoulder. He passed a paper bag to him. “Here ya go. Just in case.”
Grant snatched up the bag. But he didn’t throw up, thankfully. He just moaned a little longer, until he finally fell asleep. Astrid almost felt sorry for him. If he hadn’t scarfed up the last bit of her lemon cupcake when she turned her head to look out the window, she would have definitely felt sorry for him. Right now, she was feeling quiet vindication. She went back to looking out the window.
Astrid regretted turning down Owen’s offer to sit by the window. The view was amazing. A vast expanse of ocean as far as the eye could see, with the occasional dot of land. She had read about it in some books and Uncle Russ had told her all about it too. The Shift. The climate shift. When temperatures grew warm, causing the icebergs to melt. Water levels began to rise. Barely noticeable at first. But over the past one hundred years or so, huge chunks of land had been swallowed up by water. It was fascinating to hear his stories: fleeing his home in a boat, the great storms that wiped whole towns away, watching his father’s truck get swept away by a rush of water, while he, his parents and his two brothers clung to the trees for dear life.
It was one thing to hear his stories, but to see the aftermath with her own eyes was simply stunning. Astrid drifted off to sleep with her head on Owen’s shoulder, dreaming that she was floating on a sea of lemonade, in a boat made of chunky chocolate cookies.
The next words she remembered hearing were: “Wake up, sleepy heads.”
Jax was still in the cockpit, pushing nobs and levers, but occasionally looked back to say, “We’re here. Get ready for landing.”
Here. Where was here? Astrid craned her neck to see out of the front of the plane but all she saw was white. No more ocean. Thick clouds had surrounded the plane and seemed to be escorting them to their final destination. She felt a sinking in her stomach. The plane was dipping lower. Her excitement was elevating. This was an adventure. A full-on adventure. Not knowing what was going to happen next was scary, but also thrilling because she was with people she could trust. Whatever happened they were in it together.
The plane jolted, jiggled and jumped, tossing everyone from side to side. Before the panicking and crying started, Jax took charge. “Just a little turbulence. The plane is dancing on the air, little ones. Relax. No need to worry.”
Grant completely disregarded his words, “Relax? We’re about to fall out of the sky!”
“Stop being dramatic, boy! You think I’d put you on a plane that would drop you out of the sky?”
Another jolt and the plane dipped some more.
Astrid looked behind her. Lyric’s eyes were closed and she was quietly praying. Blue and Teal were gripping the arm rests, tightly, like they were trying to stabilize the plane on their own.
Astrid tried not to panic. She wanted to believe Jax. But with each jolt, that was getting harder and harder to do. She heard another voice in her ear, soothing her. “We’re safe. We’re almost there,” Owen said, softly.
Him, she did believe. Astrid reached her right hand over her broken left arm and grabbed on to his hand. Better. She felt much better. Owen was a rock. He didn’t even seem to mind how hard she was squeezing his poor hand. He had the same sweet smile on his face, which gave Astrid permission to hold on until the plane touched the ground.
The first thing Astrid noticed when she stepped off the plane was the air. Warm, but not that thick soup of pollution and humidity from back at home. All around her was green. There were lots of green trees and grass on Oceali—at least she thought they were green. Not like this green. Deep and lush shades of green, like she had never seen before. Beautiful. That was the only word she could think of.
The only thing that wasn’t beautiful was the sound of Grant’s retching, throwing up on the other side of the plane. He had been doing that for the past five minutes, bringing up lemon cake, candies, crackers and berries, along with whatever it was he had for breakfast.
From out of nowhere, came the music, startling Astrid. She turned around and saw the band. Children with their horns and drums, playing a festive song. Above them was a sign that said Welcome in purple letters trimmed in gold.
As the band hit its final note, she emerged.
A statuesque woman in navy blue, pinstriped trousers and silvery white silk blouse. She looked like one of those women in the old-fashioned magazines that used to belong to Uncle Russ’ wife that he, for some reason, refused to throw away. The woman took a few graceful steps and stood right in front of this group of children, who stared at her, wide-eyed, as if under her spell.
“Welcome children. My name is Allison French and I am the Dean of Education at the Academy. Welcome to the Isle of the Never Mind.”