Clara always took the early commuter flight to John Wayne. It was the best way to avoid all those families going to Disneyland. All those children. Nothing good ever came of having children around.
Which is why she kept her eyes glued on the child ahead of her in the boarding line. Too old for kindergarten but too young for high school, he wore baggy shorts and a t-shirt. His right hand was deep in the messenger bag slung across his torso.
The line inched along, each passenger presenting his or her boarding pass to the attendant at the podium. The boy handed his pass to the attendant with his left hand. His right didn't leave his bag. Two seconds later, he disappeared down the gangway.
Clara caught sight of him again on the plane. She watched as he slid into her row and settled into the window seat. A minute later, she dropped into her seat—the aisle seat right next to his—and sighed. Why did the boy still have his hand in that damn bag?
Finally, with prodding from the flight attendant, the boy slid the bag under the seat in front of him—but not before peeking inside. And were those kissing noises? Clara shook her head and opened her book.
The plane had barely reached altitude when the boy pulled the bag back onto his lad and slid his hand back inside.
"Thank you," Clara replied automatically. Then she sneezed again—two more times in quick succession.
The boy giggled.
Clara's eyes began to itch and water. She buzzed the flight attendant. "Excuse me?" she asked with a sniff. "Is there a cat on board? I'm terribly allergic."
The attendant shook her head. "No, ma'am. We have no animals on this flight. Why don't I get you some Kleenex? Maybe a bottle of water, too?"
Clara nodded and wiped tears from her eyes. "Yes, thank you."
"Maybe it's the perfume." The boy pointed at the seat ahead of Clara's. "That lady is wearing a lot."
Clara sneezed, hard, her forehead hitting the seatback in front of her.
A female voice grunted, sending the boy into another fit of giggles.
Clara turned to the boy. "Young man, do you find other people's misfortune amusing? Surely you were taught better than that."
The boy straightened. "Yes, ma'am." His hand moved inside his bag.
"What on Earth do you have in that bag?"
"Just my binkie."
"Hmmm." A binkie? Clara was sure she didn't want to know.
The flight attendant arrived with tissues and a small water bottle. Clara cleaned herself up as best she could.
Not much later, the drinks cart came through. Clara took her usual tea. The boy, to her surprise, asked only for a cup of water. Once the cart and its attendants had passed, he dipped two fingers in the cup and stuck them into his bag.
Pulling his hand back, he knocked over his cup. Water poured onto Clara's shoes. Clara sputtered, her knee-jerk reaction spilling her tea onto her lap.
"I'm so sorry!" The boy pulled a fistful of tissues out of his bag. "Here."
Clara pushed his hand away. "You keep yourself to yourself." She mopped herself up with her remaining Kleenex.
Clara sat up.
The sound came from…that boy's lap. "Young man, are you carrying a cat?"
She buzzed the flight attendant. "This young man has a creature in his carry-on."
The flight attendant gave Clara a condescending look. "Now, I'm sure—"
MEOW. A black and white kitten peeked its head out of the boy's bag.
The kitten leaped out of the bag and onto Clara's lap. Clara screamed. The kitten jumped to the floor and skittered under the seats. The flight attendant dropped to her knees and grabbed for it.
"Binkie!" The boy threw himself after the cat but was caught short by his seatbelt. He flung off the seatbelt and scrambled over Clara, elbowing her nose in the process.
Cries of surprise mixed with oohs and aahs as the escapee made its way through and under people's feet. The flight attendant crawled down the aisle reaching for the slippery kitten. The boy stumbled after her.
"Kitty!" yelled a young, excited voice.
Something landed on Clara's head. Her hairpiece slid sideways. Claws pinched her scalp.
"Binkie!" The boy reached for Clara's head.
Clara sneezed. The kitten launched itself forward. The boy came away with only Clara's hairpiece. Confused, he threw it back at Clara before diving after his cat. "Binkie, come back!"
More oohs, aahs, and cries.
"Here, kid, try this," a man's voice said. Clara detected the scent of tuna.
"Here, Binkie," the boy cooed. "Come and get it."
Clara's neck itched. Hives. Had to be. Damn cats.
"That's a good girl," the boy coaxed. "C'mon. Just a little more."
Clara wiped her nose with the only thing she had left: her sleeve. When she looked up, the boy stood next to her, Binkie in hand.
"Excuse me, ma'am."
Clara gave the boy a withering look. "I will not. Look what your cat did to me. My hair is a disaster. I'm covered in snot and drool. My skin is a mess of hives."
The boy's bottom lip trembled. "I didn't mean—"
"Ma'am," the flight attendant interrupted, "We really need the young man back in his seat so we can land the plane."
"Fine." Clara stood.
The boy slid into place, burying his face in Binkie's fur. Was he crying?
Clara crafted her complaint letter during the plane's descent. At the very least, she deserved a refund. When the plane arrived at the gate, the boy and Binkie were escorted off first. There was no mistaking his tear-stained cheeks. By the time Clara exited the plane, there was no sign of the boy or his cat. Both deserved to be put on the terrorist watch list.
Well, maybe just the cat.
Click here to read the story behind "Clara and the Kid."