Clouds, Ian reflects, look like cities. When you’re below them, they just look like rounded formations, sometimes flat on the bottom. But from above, you can see their tops, how they reach into spires that tower above the rest of the milky white landscape. As he stares out the window, the closer he looks at the cloud formations, the more it looks to him like he’s gliding above a whole new world that’s normally hidden but still floating right above everyone’s heads. That sense of wonder only stays for a second, though, and then he starts wondering about how much impact their plane and others are making on those formations, on their shapes and how fast they glide. He has a friend at Berkeley named Buldwen, another chaotician, who could probably tell him. He remembers seeing a strange attractor created by Buldwen that described cloud formation patterns once; it was—
“Complimentary drinks?” Malcolm looks up; a petite woman in a flight attendant’s uniform is standing in the aisle with a huge, metal drink cart, smiling blandly.
He looks over at his daughter; she’s working intently on something. Not looking up, she shakes her head. “No, thanks,” he tells the stewardess, smiling briefly. She pushes her cart forward, and Malcolm turns his attention back to Anna. “You’re working hard on that. Is that, ah, a diary?” She nods, pushing a curl that’s fallen out of her bun behind her ear. “What are you doing? Picking the lock?”
“Yeah,” she says, and a second later, she smiles widely, lifting up a small book with a green plastic cover, the words TOP SECRET written on it in cursive and a tiny padlock, which is open. “Look at that. Only took a minute and a half.”
He looks at what she’s holding in her other hand. “With a bobby pin, no less. Impressive.”
“I don’t know if I’ll ever need to do that, but it’s helpful,” Anna says. She pulls a tiny silver key out of her pocket, inserts it into the lock and twists and stuffs it in her pocket again. Then she looks down at the bobby pin in her hand, bent and twisted out of shape. “Guess I can’t use this anymore.” She sticks the pin in the pocket on the seat in front of her, and then the small green notebook.
“Make sure you don’t leave that here.”
“Doesn’t matter,” she says. “I just doodle in it. I don’t write.”
“Any particular reason?”
She shakes her head silently. “I just bought it for the lock.”
Malcolm doesn’t quite believe this—he has vague thoughts about trust issues with adults—but Anna’s diverted her attention to digging through her carry-on, and this isn’t the time to press the issue. He watches her for a second, taking in her calmness and contentment. He realized as soon as he saw her in the morning that it was a mistake to take her; he considered taking back his reckless decision, but instantly heard two young, wounded voices in his head, one saying, “You can’t just dump me at home and take off. Not like you did when I was little,” and the other, “But you never keep your word!” And then the realization hit that this wasn’t just about Tim and Lex— he realized how willing he always is to abandon his kids and run off whenever an opportunity comes up, how often he does it, and how hurt all of them are by it. No way is he doing that again. So he drove his car to the airport with his daughter in the passenger’s seat, picked up two tickets at check-in and boarded a United flight to Orlando with her, not saying a word about the terrible apprehension deep in his gut. The whole way there, he promised himself over and over that he won’t let Anna out of his sight until they get back home, and he has no intention of breaking that.
Ian glances across the aisle once again at the young woman sitting in the blue plush seat parallel to his. She has a fair amount of freckles and red hair that looks very meticulously straightened, and she seems fairly displeased—no, more like anxious—with her surroundings. She taps her right foot in a quick, distinct rhythm and runs her index finger back and forth on the laptop bag on her lap. Throughout the flight, she’s ordered two glasses of orange juice, checked something on her laptop and looked disappointed five times, and flipped through SkyMall too often to count.
Judging by her black dress pants and blue blouse, Ian silently decides that she must be either a businesswoman or a rich lady on her way to doing whatever it is that rich people do for a living. Neither of those are the types of women that he’s usually involved with, but he can appreciate an occasional challenge. He turns around in his seat and reaches out to tap her shoulder, but decides against it and says, “You, ah, wouldn’t happen to be going to a convention, would you?”
The woman quickly turns and looks at him, looking anxious for a second, then relaxing when she sees his face. “Yes, I’m going to an engineers’ conference.”
“I thought so,” he says, leaning forward. “Conference season. Every flight this time of year is full of people in business suits.” She smiles politely. “I’m—I’m Ian, by the way.”
“Vanessa,” she says.
“So.” He lifts the armrest and turns further, putting his legs out in the aisle. “What kind of engineering do you do? I know there’s-”
“‘Scuse me.” A shortish man with close-cropped brown hair steps over Ian, and Vanessa moves to the window seat. The man takes the seat across from Ian and asks Vanessa, “Have they emailed you the video yet?”
“Honey, I don’t know what the matter is,” Vanessa tells him urgently. “They said it would be done by now. How am I supposed to give my presentation if…”
Ian tunes them out, turns away, gets back in a comfortable position and counts his losses; they probably never would have seen each other after the flight anyway, and there’s a good chance that, yet again, he just subconsciously wanted Sarah back. Instinctively, he reaches to the floor and touches the outside pocket of his navy blue suitcase, making sure once again that he can feel the outline of a stack of papers there, and when he’s sure he feels an edge, he leans back and closes his eyes. He didn’t sleep much last night, and he has a feeling that Anna didn’t either. Once the plane lands, he’s sure that both of them will need all the energy they can get. He falls into a light sleep after a little while, but not after he silently wonders how long the rest of the flight is, and whether or not both of them will survive to make the flight home.