“Light Up,” fiction by Brett Stuckel
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Seat number 2E was designated the Papal Seat, so I vacuumed it three times with the thin nozzle to get out all the pretzel dust. Sat down and tested the seatbelt, made sure there wasn’t any gum wedged in the buckle. I stowed the belt extender in the crew basket overhead — the Pope wears about seven smocks, and from what I’d seen on TV, he was going to need the extra slack.
Sheila dumped all the magazines from coach. It’s just press corps back there, and if they didn’t bring their own reading material, tough. Fuel economy comes first. Underneath, Hank loaded the hold with gifts and jewels and holy wooden thrones. Eva prepped the lavatory, stocked a box of wet wipes, and taped over the smoke detector real tight.
I stashed the Marlboro Reds behind the top lip of the lav mirror, loose, as instructed in the printout from headquarters, and a Bic lighter, yellow. Also, under the sink, a gown: full length and flame retardant. That white must be impossible to wear.
We worried the Pope’s one remaining lung would collapse on our flight — a sudden shock of turbulence while he dragged, a panicky jostle, a fall, and a counter-edge to the diaphragm. We hoped he’d be smart enough to sit on the closed lid of the john when he lit up, and we even rigged a seatbelt. Cooper changed out the blue water with clear formula because even if the lid’s shut, rough air can do horrible things. Last, we taped a sign to the door, POPE ONLY, his chapel, pulpit, confessional. We tested code words and settled on the Red Room.
The Pope arrived half an hour ahead of schedule, clasping hands on the tarmac, squeezing desperately. His wrists trembled as he fielded requests and apologies from politicians, then, with an aide on each elbow, he trudged up the stairs to the plane. He blessed the captain, co-pilot, and flight engineer with heavy grunted words, saying pray for me, pray for me. I led him to his seat.
We slammed to full power down the runway, but the plane felt like it had a plow on the front. Somehow we got the wheels up 30 feet before the end of the tarmac, and the captain blinked the no smoking sign six times — prepare to ditch. My training kicked in all wrong, and I remembered a story from the workbook, a flight from Bolivia to Switzerland where the finance minister loaded a bunch of gold bars and didn’t tell the crew. That’s going to be us.
I looked front and back to make sure everyone was buckled in, and caught a flop of white out of the corner of my eye. The Pope was dragging himself up the aisle and into the Red Room. Nobody dared to yell Back in your seat. The turbines were screaming, we were pulling hard to try to catch some help from the jet stream. Then a carpet of smoke rolled out from under the lav door, and the engines started to mellow. Finally, over Greenland, the pilots eased into the usual speed at the usual cruise. I ventured to the Red Room and knocked. He answered Pray for me.
He was still in there when we approached Rome. I had to get him back to his seat, but now he didn’t answer. I keyed open the lav and found him crumpled on the floor, white robes tar-stained and ashy, three cigarettes in his mouth. Then he jumped to life, brushed himself bleach-clean with a swipe of the hand, and floated back down the aisle. I buckled his belt, no extender needed. He pulled me close and coughed thank you, and I heard the weight returning and knew why he asks us to pray.