Clara and the Kid

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.

Clara sneezed.

"Bless you."

"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.

Photo by isumi/iStock / Getty Images
Photo by isumi/iStock / Getty Images

Clara sneezed.

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."

Act Natural

Cleo nudged Thea. “Do it!” 

The girls stood outside Vintage Veronica, peering through the window at a chestnut-colored flapper’s dress. Thea had never wanted anything so badly.

“You know your dad will never give you the money for it,” Cleo whispered. “You should just take it.”

“That’s . . . that’s shoplifting. I can’t do that.”

“C’mon, stores expect to lose some merchandise to five finger discounts. I used to work retail. I know.”

“I’ve never stolen anything in my life.” Thea spoke in a near-mutter. “I wouldn’t know what to do.”

Cleo shrugged. “It’s easy. Just act natural.” She pushed Thea inside. “What could possibly go wrong?”

Thea stumbled. She steadied herself with the nearest rack, which rocked but didn’t fall over. She snuck a look at her friend. Cleo waved her on with both hands before blowing a bubble with her gum.

Thea straightened. Don’t be obvious, she told herself. With a deep breath, she looked around the store. Halfway between her and the dress was a pile of hats, an ivory cloche perched on top. Thea started toward it at top speed. No, act natural, she reminded herself. She slowed her steps but her shoulders stayed locked and square.

On her tiptoes, she could just pinch the hat’s edge. She pulled but lost her grip. She pulled again. The hat inched toward her but no further. With the hat seemingly snagged, Thea tugged harder.

Whoosh! The pile fell at her feet.

Thea froze. One more hat dropped to the floor.

With a surreptitious glance around her, Thea plucked the cloche from the heap and scurried to the dressing room, grabbing the dress along the way.

She collapsed against the dressing room wall and exhaled long and slow.

“What are you doing?” Cleo hissed.

Thea jumped. Her friend spun inside and flung the drape door closed.

“Let’s see it.” Cleo grabbed the dress. She held it up to her shoulders. She kicked one foot forward doing the Charleston, then kicked her other foot back.

“OUCH!” Thea clutched her cheek, tears streaming out of her eyes.

Cleo dropped to her knees. “Oh my gosh, I’m so sorry. I—”

A knock on the doorframe interrupted her. “Everything okay in there?”

Cleo peered out the door at the sales clerk. “We’re fine. I just accidentally elbowed my friend.”

Thea could hear the doubt in the clerk’s voice when she said, “Well, let me know if you need anything.”

“Now what?” Thea asked, rubbing her sore cheek.

“Stand up.” Cleo pulled Thea to her feet. She pulled at Thea’s t-shirt. “We can hide the dress under your shirt. It’s loose enough.”

Thea blinked. “This was all your idea. Why can’t we hide the dress under your shirt?”

Cleo ran her hands along her tightly-fitted tank and cocked her hip. “Baby, this don’t hide anything.” She threw the dress at Thea. “Start folding.”

Thea obeyed. She folded the dress in half and then in half again. She felt the security tag on the third fold. Holding it up, she asked, “What do we do about this?”

“Foil.” Cleo spit her gum. The wad landed squarely on the cloche hat.

Thea stared at Cleo then at the gum then at Cleo again.

“Looks like we’re taking the hat, too,” Cleo said, as if it were nothing. She pulled a pack of gum from her back pocket and slid out two sticks. She stuffed the gum in her mouth and smoothed out the foil wrappers.

Thea watched as Cleo folded the wrappers around the security tag on the dress. “Perfect. The sensor will never know it’s there.”

Cleo folded the dress and slid it inside the hat, then handed both to Thea. “Hold this.”

Another two sticks of gum, this time for Thea, and two foil wrappers for the security tag in the hat. Then Cleo tucked the dress-stuffed hat into Thea’s waistband and stepped aside with a wave toward the mirror. “What do you think?”

Thea studied her reflection, preening to the left and then the right. “I look like a pregnant woman with a cheek tumor.” She faced Cleo. “Why don’t we just trade shirts and you can carry this stuff?”

Cleo shook her head. “Be cool. You’ve got this.” She slid open the curtain. “I’ll go first and distract the clerk. All you have to do is walk out. And remember: act natural.” Then she disappeared.

A few seconds and one deep breath later, Thea stepped out of the dressing room. With her back military-straight, her pace measured, and her eyes focused on the door, she headed toward the front of the store.

A loud screech accompanied sharp pain in her toe. Damn chair. Cleo and the sales clerk gaped at her from the counter. Act natural. She slid the chair back into place and gave a dismissive wave. “Sorry. I’m okay.”

She waited until Cleo and the clerk returned their attention to their transaction before moving forward. She made it to the front of the store and stopped for a cleansing breath.

With Thea’s next step, the world exploded with sound. The store alarm wailed like an air raid siren. A security guard appeared on the outside of the door. Thea looked over her shoulder. The clerk stood behind her, arms crossed, satisfied smile on her face. Cleo stood behind the clerk, her expression unreadable.

Less than an hour later, a uniformed police officer led a handcuffed Thea and Cleo out of the store.

“My dad’s going to kill me,” Thea muttered.

“It’ll be fine,” Cleo whispered back. “Just act natural.”


Click here for the story behind "Act Natural."