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About three hours after Flight 29 took off, a little girl named Dinah Bellman woke up and asked her Aunt Vicky if she could have a drink of water.
Aunt Vicky did not answer, so Dinah asked again. When there was still no answer, she reached over to touch her aunt's shoulder, but she was already quite sure that her hand would touch nothing but the back of an empty seat, and that was what happened. Dr Feldman had told her that children who were blind from birth often developed a high sensitivity - almost a kind of radar - to the presence or absence of people in their immediate area, but Dinah hadn't really needed the information. She knew it was true. It didn't always work, but it usually did ... especially if the person in question was her Sighted Person.
Well, she's gone to the bathroom and she'll be right back, Dinah thought, but she felt an odd, vague disquiet settle over her just the same. She hadn't come awake all at once; it had been a slow process, like a diver kicking her way to the surface of a lake. If Aunt Vicky, who had the window seat, had brushed by her to get to the aisle in the last two or three minutes, Dinah should have felt her.
So she went sooner, she told herself. Probably she had to Number Two - It's really no big deal, Dinah. Or maybe she stopped to talk with somebody on her way back.
Except Dinah couldn't hear anyone talking in the big airplane's main cabin; only the steady soft drone of the jet engines. Her feeling of disquiet grew.
The voice of Miss Lee, her therapist (except Dinah always thought of her as her blind teacher), spoke up in her head: You mustn't be afraid to be afraid, Dinah - all children are afraid from time to time, especially in situations that are new to them. That goes double for children who are blind. Believe me, I know. And Dinah did believe her, because, like Dinah herself, Miss Lee had been blind since birth. Don't give up your fear ... but don't give in to it, either. Sit still and try to reason things out. You'll be surprised how often it works.
Especially in situations that are new to them.
Well, that certainly fits; this was the first time Dinah had ever flown in anything, let alone coast to coast in a huge transcontinental jetliner.
Try to reason it out.
Well, she had awakened in a strange place to find her Sighted Person gone. Of course that was scary, even if you knew the absence was only temporary - after all, your Sighted Person couldn't very well decide to pop off to the nearest Taco Bell because she had the munchies when she was shut up in an airplane flying at 37,000 feet. As for the strange silence in the cabin ... well, this was the red-eye, after all. The other passengers were probably sleeping.
All of them? the worried part of her mind asked doubtfully. ALL of them are sleeping? Can that be?
Then the answer came to her: the movie. The ones who were awake were watching the in-flight movie. Of course.
A sense of almost palpable relief swept over her. Aunt Vicky had told her the movie was Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan in When Harry Met Sally, and said she planned to watch it herself ... if she could stay awake, that was.
Dinah ran her hand lightly over her aunt's seat, feeling for her headphones, but they weren't there. Her fingers touched a paperback book instead. One of the romance novels Aunt Vicky liked to read, no doubt - tales of the days when men were men and women weren't, she called them.
Dinah's fingers went a little further and happened on something else - smooth, fine-grained leather. A moment later she felt a zipper, and a moment after that she felt the strap.
It was Aunt Vicky's purse.
Dinah's disquiet returned. The earphones weren't on Aunt Vicky's seat, but her purse was. All the traveller's checks, except for a twenty tucked deep into Dinah's own purse, were in there - Dinah knew, because she had heard Mom and Aunt Vicky discussing them before they left the house in Pasadena.
Would Aunt Vicky go off to the bathroom and leave her purse on the seat? Would she do that when her travelling companion was not only ten, not only asleep, but blind?
Dinah didn't think so.
Don't give up your fear ... but don't give in to it, either. Sit still and try to reason things out.
But she didn't like that empty seat, and she didn't like the silence of the plane. It made perfect sense to her that most of the people would be asleep, and that the ones who were awake would be keeping as quiet as possible out of consideration for the rest, but she still didn't like it. An animal, one with extremely sharp teeth and claws, awakened and started to snarl inside of her head. She knew the name of that animal; it was panic, and if she didn't control it fast, she might do something which would embarrass both her and Aunt Vicky.
When I can see, when the doctors in Boston fix my eyes, I won't have to go through stupid stuff like this.
This was undoubtedly true, but it was absolutely no help to her right now.
Dinah suddenly remembered that, after they sat down, Aunt Vicky had taken her hand, folded all the fingers but the pointer under, and then guided that one finger to the side of her seat. The controls were there - only a few of them, simple, easy to remember. There were two little wheels you could use once you put on the headphones - one switched around to the different audio channels; the other controlled the volume. The small rectangular switch controlled the light over her seat. You won't need that one, Aunt Vicky had said with a smile in her voice. At least, not yet. The last one was a square button - when you pushed that one, a flight attendant came.
Dinah's finger touched this button now, and skated over its slightly convex surface.
Do you really want to do this? she asked herself, and the answer came back at once. Yeah, I do.
She pushed the button and heard the soft chime. Then she waited.
No one came.
There was only the soft, seemingly eternal whisper of the jet engines. No one spoke. No one laughed (Guess that movie isn't as funny as Aunt Vicky thought it would be, Dinah thought). No one coughed. The seat beside her, Aunt Vicky's seat, was still empty, and no flight attendant bent over her in a comforting little envelope of perfume and shampoo and faint smells of make-up to ask Dinah if she could get her something - a snack, or maybe that drink of water.
Only the steady soft drone of the jet engines.
The panic animal was yammering louder than ever. To combat it, Dinah concentrated on focussing that radar gadget, making it into a kind of invisible cane she could jab out from her seat here in the middle of the main cabin. She was good at that; at times, when she concentrated very hard, she almost believed she could see through the eyes of others. If she thought about it hard enough, wanted to hard enough. Once she had told Miss Lee about this feeling, and Miss Lee's response had been uncharacteristically sharp. Sight-sharing is a frequent fantasy of the blind, she'd said. Particularly of blind children. Don't ever make the mistake of relying on that feeling, Dinah, or you're apt to find yourself in traction after falling down a flight of stairs or stepping in front of a car.
So she had put aside her efforts to 'sight-share,' as Miss Lee had called it, and on the few occasions when the sensation stole over her again - that she was seeing the world, shadowy, wavery, but there - through her mother's eyes or Aunt Vicky's eyes, she had tried to get rid of it ... as a person who fears he is losing his mind will try to block out the murmur of phantom voices. But now she was afraid and so she felt for others, sensed for others, and did not find them.
Now the terror was very large in her, the yammering of the panic animal very loud. She felt a cry building up in her throat and clamped her teeth against it. Because it would not come out as a cry, or a yell; if she let it out, it would exit her mouth as a firebell scream.
I won't scream, she told herself fiercely. I won't scream and embarrass Aunt Vicky. I won't scream and wake up all the ones who are asleep and scare all the ones who are awake and they'll all come running and say look at the scared little girl, look at the scared little blind girl.
But now that radar sense - that part of her which evaluated all sorts of vague sensory input and which sometimes did seem to see through the eyes of others (no matter what Miss Lee said) - was adding to her fear rather than alleviating it.
Because that sense was telling her there was nobody within its circle of effectiveness.
Nobody at all.
No one answered her. Forty rows and two partitions forward, Captain Brian Engle was dreaming that his navigator was weeping and eating a Danish pastry.
There was only the continuing drone of the jet engines.
The panic overshadowed her mind again, and Dinah did the only thing she could think of to stave it off: she unbuckled her seatbelt, stood up, and edged into the aisle.
'Hello?' she asked in a louder voice. 'Hello, anybody!'
There was still no answer. Dinah began to cry. She held onto herself grimly, nonetheless, and began walking forward slowly along the portside aisle. Keep count, though, part of her mind warned frantically. Keep count of how many rows you pass, or you'll get lost and never find your way back again.
She stopped at the row of portside seats just ahead of the row in which she and Aunt Vicky had been sitting and bent, arms outstretched, fingers splayed. She knew there was a man here, because Aunt Vicky had spoken to him only a minute or so before the plane took off. When he spoke back to her, his voice had come from the seat directly in front of Dinah's own. She knew that; marking the locations of voices was part of her life, an ordinary fact of existence like breathing. The sleeping man would jump when her outstretched fingers touched him, but Dinah was beyond caring.
Except the seat was empty.
Dinah straightened up again, her cheeks wet, her head pounding with fright. They couldn't be in the bathroom together, could they? Of course not.
Perhaps there were two bathrooms. In a plane this big there must be two bathrooms.
Except that didn't matter, either.
Aunt Vicky wouldn't have left her purse, no matter what. Dinah was sure of it.
She began to walk slowly forward, stopping at each row of seats, reaching into the two closest her first on the port side and then on the starboard.
She felt another purse in one, what felt like a briefcase in another, a pen and a pad of paper in a third. In two others she felt headphones. She touched something sticky on an earpiece of the second set. She rubbed her fingers together, then grimaced and wiped them on the mat which covered the headrest of the seat. That had been earwax. She was sure of it. It had its own unmistakable, yucky texture.
Dinah Bellman felt her slow way up the aisle, no longer taking pains to be gentle in her investigations. It didn't matter. She poked no eye, pinched no cheek, pulled no hair.
Every seat she investigated was empty.
This can't be, she thought wildly. It just can't be! They were all around us when we got on! I heard them! I felt them! I smelled them! Where have they all gone?
She didn't know, but they were gone: she was becoming steadily more sure of that.
At some point, while she slept, her aunt and everyone else on Flight 29 had disappeared.
No! The rational part of her mind clamored in the voice of Miss Lee. No, that's impossible, Dinah! If everyone's gone, who is flying the plane?
She began to move forward faster now, hands gripping the edges of the seats, her blind eyes wide open behind her dark glasses, the hem of her pink travelling dress fluttering. She had lost count, but in her greater distress over the continuing silence, this did not matter much to her.
She stopped again, and reached her groping hands into the seat on her right. This time she touched hair ... but its location was all wrong. The hair was on the seat - how could that be?
Her hands closed around it ... and lifted it. Realization, sudden and terrible, came to her.
It's hair, but the man it belongs to is gone. It's a scalp. I'm holding a dead man's scalp.
That was when Dinah Bellman opened her mouth and began to give voice to the shrieks which pulled Brian Engle from his dream.
«The Little Blind Girl»