Short Story: A Long, Long Flight
I originally wrote this short story for a writing prompt on WritersDigest Forum. I am sharing it here with a few minor edits.
“You know what’s the toughest thing for the human brain to do?” he asked me after a few minutes into our casual chat.
“I don’t know. A lot of things, maybe. What are you? A neuroscientist?”
“Heck, no. I am no scientist. I am just an old man with a lot of guilt. A lot of secret burden I had been carrying from the past thirty years,” he said rather contemplatively for his lifeless face. His gray beard and wrinkles on his forehead suggested he must be in his late fifties or early sixties.
“That’s more than what I would be interested to know about you now. But what’s the hardest thing for the human brain to do?” I asked, intrigued by his question.
“Well, there may be quite a few things, but to hold a dark secret for long is the cruelest of all. As long as three decades in my case. It’s like an eternity in brain’s timescale,” he said.
“That’s tough. I have never held a secret in my life for any longer than I ever held my breath. Or maybe, I never had any secrets worth staying secret,” I said. Soon I regretted I was giving too much personal information to this crazy stranger.
“Where are you headed to?” he asked.
“Paris,” I said.
“What’s Paris to do with an almost old man like you?”
“Excuse me, is it any of your business?” I blurted.
“I am sorry. I did not mean to hurt you,” he said.
The flight was empty in the last five rows, and I thought I should rather move to one of those empty rows.
“That’s okay. I can pardon an irritating old man,” I said. I was hoping a harsh remark like that would curtail this unpleasant conversation.
“What is it with Paris?” he pestered again.
“I prefer rather not talk about it,” I said.
“How can you not have any secrets to keep to yourself? Haven’t you ever cheated your wife?”
“I don’t have one,” I said.
“I had one until a month ago. She passed away. Finally. She was suffering from a strange disease for ten years or so. I am happy she is no more suffering,” he said without a hint of sadness.
“You don’t sound like you need a sorry from me,” I said.
“I have never told her my secret as well. She was a fine woman. For sure, she would never have forgiven me for what I did,” he said. For the first time, he sounded more sincere than he had been all this time.
“Why would you bother me with all this?”
“I don’t know. I had been thinking ever since my wife died. All my life looks like an empty lie now.”
Suddenly, for the first time, I was honestly sorry for this man.
“What’s an old man like you going to do in Paris?” I asked him. He told me he was headed to Paris when he introduced himself.
“I don’t know. A pilgrimage, maybe,” he said with a confused look.
“Why would you keep any secret from your wife? I guess you did love her,” I said. For some strange reasons, I was now interested in his secret.
“Fear. Just fear, but nothing else. I was afraid of losing her. All these thirty years, I lived a life of a lie with her. How can I forgive myself? Both for doing what I did and keeping it a secret for all these years?”
“I can understand. But if you never told your wife, why would you start talking about it today with a random stranger on a flight?”
“Well, my brain can no more hold it. The burden of it is too heavy for my aging neurons. I need to get this out even if what I did means nothing to a stranger like you. I am sure you wouldn’t care much about what I did. Nor would you remember this conversation after a few days.”
“Well, I am no more interested in knowing your secret than I am interested in knowing about the American politics,” I said. I knew the old man would anyhow reveal the secret. I wanted to act as if I never cared.
“I killed two people, thirty years ago on this very same day,” he blurted out as if that was the most notable thing he would put on his job application; no hint of emotion on his face, but a strange sense of burden vanished from his wrinkled face. His face looked more saint-like than it did all this time.
“Well, I am sure why you had to keep it a secret, then,” I said as a matter of fact. I was surprised by his confession, but I knew the scene was building up to something revealing like this.
“No. I had to keep it a secret because I had a family. Two toddlers to care for. A wife. You know, a family who totally depended on me. But our twin boys were taken away from us before they turned teens. Both died of some health issues a year apart,” he said with visible hints of tears under his thick, slim-rimmed spectacles.
“But why did you murder when you had a family? What were you? A drug dealer then? Or a contract killer?” How could I be so insensitive?
“Well, it was an auto accident, to be precise. I hit a car while I was driving. I saw there was a woman in the passenger seat. There was a baby in the back seat. That’s all I saw. I thought they were dead for sure. There was no one on the road as a witness. It was a hit and run case. I was a bit drunk that day. Maybe they were not dead. I managed to get to my house without getting noticed in the dark. It was raining on that night. I still get nightmares every other day. The helpless woman and the baby in the backseat. On this very same day,” he said. He removed his spectacles and wiped his tears.
“On this same day? Where?”
“A small town in Northern California,” he said. “Why would you care anyhow?” he added as he was surprised by my rather emotionless question to his dark confession.
“Do you remember the car? Do you remember how the woman looked?”
“Why would you care? Yes, it was a black car. I still remember her face. It stared at me helplessly out of the broken glass. She had blond hair and neatly dressed in white. How can I forget something like that? How can I? All these years, I had been too afraid. I was too selfish to save my own family. Now I am left with nothing, nothing but lifetimes of guilt.”
I did not speak a word after that for five minutes or so. I finally met the man I had been waiting to see for all my life. A man who left my beautiful wife and our daughter to their fate on that fateful evening. A man who never cared to call cops at least. Finally, I had a face to associate with. All these thirty years, I lived a life of total regret. Why did I ask my wife to come home late that day? I wanted to surprise her on our anniversary. On this very same day. And on this very same day thirty-three years ago, I met her in Paris for the first time. On this very same day thirty years ago, fate took her into darkness along with our beautiful daughter. All these years I lived a life of nothing but regret.
“What happened to your wife? Are you alone?” he asked. By this time he had composed himself.
“Nothing. Some disease. You know,” I said. Then I moved to a window seat in the last row behind us. I stretched my legs and stared into the darkness out of the window. Then I drifted off into sleep before I knew.