by Marion Lougheed
The passengers stand in an impatient line, wrappers and newspapers littering the seats around them. When the airplane door sighs open at last, a torrent of people clutching jackets and handbags flee the recycled air, bursting into the jetway, pulling luggage behind them—a flood of wheels zipping over the metal joints in the floor.
Elena walks with her head high, one thick-heeled shoe in front of the other, step-step-stepping in a beat that wraps her flailing heart in a blanket of calm. She crosses into the airport proper, where a crew member with weary eyes smiles at each passenger. Elena envies that ready lifting of the cheeks, the crinkling of the eyes, no strain in the woman’s professional ease. In the customs line, Elena forces her muscles into a smile. A creak in her jaw, her eyes too wide, her teeth bared mechanically. She lets her face drop back into its natural pose.
The last time she had really smiled was six months ago, at a salmon run. Fish the size of cricket bats were wriggling upstream, lurking in eddies before the next leap, dark shapes beneath the river’s sparkling surface.
Elena had been lucky to have the river all to herself—except for the salmon and a heron, still as stone, where the river bent towards the south. Impulsively, Elena had stripped to her underwear and waded into the shallow flow, one hand cupping her newly swollen belly.
Springtime hadn’t yet warmed the water; she’d shivered deliciously as her toes grew numb against the pebbled bottom. Alone with the rustling trees and gurgling river, Elena had felt a flush of life. She’d thrown her hands in the air and whooped. With a miffed squawk, the heron had unfurled its wings. Elena had laughed in defiant delight.
Now, outside the airport, the air is filled with exhaust and autumn rain. Foreign exhaust and foreign rain, she reminds herself: a new country.
A bus-route map hangs on a red pole. She checks her watch – her phone still lies abandoned in some stream a world away. It’s litter, she knows, but the need to bury it where it would never be found had compelled her to leave it there, against her better judgment. Now its battery and all its other toxic innards are leaching into the stream. She cringes at the thought. But it’s a metaphor, she tells herself, for her old life leaching back into the wild: a stillborn child; a boss who’d pushed Elena to resign; divorce papers, lawyers, friends forced to choose.
A red bus chuffs to a halt and four people disembark, hats and jackets tight against the wind. A gust whips Elena’s scarf free, unfurling it like a sail. Her first thought is to grab for it, but instead she watches as it somersaults along the pavement. The bus driver says something in a language she doesn’t yet understand. As she climbs into the bus and settles into a window seat, the smell of stale cigarettes and old sweat engulfs her.
“Home,” she whispers, as if instructing a chauffeur. She will know it when she sees it.