The smell starts to linger on your clothes even after you come home and put them through a few cycles in the wash– tumble dry, just like it says to on the tags tucked away in the inseams. And that smell, it bothers you, because the only way you really know how to get rid of it is to stop talking to Caroline. You like her; you’ve known each other since you’ve been in diapers, and tolerating that God awful smell seems like a small price to pay. She can make you break into laughter just by twisting her delicate features into a silly face that just doesn’t seem to fit her, since she’s got a pretty thoughtful look about her most of the time.
But it’s hard to keep all of that in mind when her words are swallowed up by that cloying scent. You can almost see it, wafting around her in the same way that ink or paint feathers away when a drop of it falls into water, kind of like tentacles that reach desperately out towards her. You’ve given up on trying to get them away from people for a while now, but because it’s Caroline, you’ve been pushing them aside when you see them. The tentacles always seem to jolt in annoyance. They ease away for a bit, but you know that they won’t leave forever.
You’re sitting outside with her, cutting class because c’mon, it’s June and school ends in a week and you have to loosen up a little, Caroline tells you. You’re leaning against the brick wall near the back entrance, feeling your skin prickle every time a janitor or groundskeeper walks by, but nobody says anything. Caroline’s not sitting normally; she doesn’t get why people have chosen an upright position to be the go-to. She’s lying on the ground with her legs propped up against the wall, staring up at the sky, watching planes pass by and trying to guess the stories of the passengers that she can’t see.
“Seat 15C. She’s stuck in the middle seat, but that’s okay, because she’s on her way home to see her husband, so being sandwiched between a few strangers is the last thing on her mind. She got that promotion a few years ago, but it meant that they’d be sending her abroad to China to handle the marketing branch there, so this is her first time back in the States in a while. And she’s excited,” Caroline looks at you out of the corner of her eye, “because she’s making it back in time to celebrate the five year marriage anniversary, and she has all of these things planned. What do you think is waiting for her?”
“Well,” you say, tilting your head back and feeling the brick wall dig into your neck. You close your eyes for a split second, trying to imagine Passenger 15C, a thin woman with a habit of fiddling with the ring on her finger. “Her husband, he’s a nice guy and all, but a little bit wishy-washy, always struggling with commitment. And being away has made her gloss over all of his faults, it’s tinged all of her memories with nostalgia so they seem a little bit sweeter than they actually were. She’s got a fancy dinner reserved, at the restaurant where they had their first date, but little does she know that when she gets home, she’s going to find him tangled up with another woman on a couch that’s unfamiliar, ‘cause he bought it while she was gone, and she looks around and realizes that nothing looks the same anymore and–”
Caroline cuts you off. “That’s twisted,” she half smiles, “but I guess I should’ve expected that from you, huh?”
“Things like that happen. You’re just a serial sugar-coater.”
“I can think of worse things to be,” she retorts, and you can’t help but laugh because yes, there are so many worse things to be, and you’re glad that Caroline is as different from you as she is. And it’s in that split second that you think that when the smell gets so startlingly strong that you rear away from her. It’s such a sudden movement that you fall backwards against the brick, hitting your head, hard. It’s funny, you didn’t even realize that you were leaning towards her in the first place.
“Are you okay?” Terror flashes across Caroline’s face when you reach up to the back of your head, and your hand comes away dripping with blood. “Hey, what happened? You okay?” She props herself up on her elbows, reaching out to you. You try not to flinch away– that smell, it both nauseates and worries you, and you should be the one asking her if she’s okay.
In a flash, you remember the first time that you smelled that smell. It was back in the first grade and Caroline was there with you, even then. She was climbing the slide during recess, instead of going down it. She had asked you to slide down while she went up, so the two of you ended up in a pile of limbs somewhere along the middle. And it was probably around the fifteenth time that you were doing this when Caroline stopped, and squealed at you to come, hurry and come, because look at that little baby squirrel over there, don’t you see it, it’s on the lowest branch of that tree over there, and isn’t it just adorable.
Caroline had insisted on going closer, and she had grabbed your hands that were still a little bit grubby from digging into the dirt earlier to drag you closer. It was then, as you neared that little squirrel, that you smelled something sickly sweet, like fermenting apples. You had looked around curiously, but you couldn’t see anything until you noticed thin, nearly transparent tendrils that you could trace back to the little squirrel. “Caroline–” you had started to say, because something was wrong, something was off, but she was too busy tiptoeing closer and closer.
She was just a few feet away, reaching out with an outstretched finger, and the smell had grown stronger and stronger until, in a disconcerting instant, in a flurry of feathers, the squirrel was plucked from the ground. As a hawk carried the squirrel away, its talons dug into soft flesh, and tufts of fur and drops of blood rained down onto Caroline’s horrified face. But you hardly noticed, because you realized, in a moment of alarm, that the smell was fading away as the hawk rose higher and higher into the sky.
Caroline had run over to you, sobbing, and you had plucked a piece of fluffy white fur out of her golden-streaked hair, but your mind was churning. You had smelled that eerie smell, you had known that something was wrong, before that something wrong had ever even happened. And that smell would haunt you for the next ten years. It appeared around your next door neighbor the day before he suffered a heart attack, your family friend minutes before he left a house party a little bit too tipsy, and your grandmother the night before she passed away.
Caroline is standing over you right now, cupping the back of your neck and dabbing at the blood with a wadded up napkin she finds in her pocket. That smell is all over her. You suck in a sharp breath, and Caroline pulls her hands away. “Did that hurt? I’m sorry. Are you okay?” You’re okay, you know you will be, you just don’t know about her, and there’s a lump in your throat that is too hard to swallow.
“I want to fix that story,” you tell her, looking back up at the sky. The plane is all but gone, leaving behind nothing but a cloudy trail.
She humors you, the way she always does, choosing to temporarily forget about the gash on your neck and instead plopping down next to you. The two of you stare at the heavens, and you turn slightly so that you can see her uplifted face out of the corner of your eye. “Passenger 15C,” you take a deep breath. “She’s been through it all. She struggled being so far away from home, thrown into a country all by herself, but it’s made her stronger.”
Caroline hums with approval, and while she’s not looking, you flick one of the tendrils away from her wrist, praying that they’ll go away forever. “It’s been a while since she’s seen her husband, so she’s not quite sure what’ll happen. Or, I guess, I’m not really sure what’ll happen,” you say slowly. “But she’s boarded the plane anyway, a little nervous to return after so long. And she finds herself next to another lady who’s going to her son’s wedding, and the two of them end up talking. And you end up realizing that every single person on that plane has a place to be, a set of arms to come home to, and every single one of them is hoping to get home safely.”
The school bell rings, and the double doors open as students pour out of the building. Caroline hops up. “I forgot. I have to watch Brady tonight,” she says, gathering her things. “Mom and Dad are going out for dinner.” She laughs, reaches out and squeezes your hand. “That was a better end to your story, you know.” Then, in a flash, she’s gone, because Caroline is a whirlwind wherever she goes, running towards the parking lot. She bumps into a few friends on the way, carrying the scent away with her, and you watch her as she gets smaller and smaller in the distance.
You feel sick to your stomach. You hope she’ll get home safely too.