Short Story Writer and Novelist
Max Granfield is a short story writer and novelist based in Iowa City, Iowa.
His stories are characterized by a sparse, almost utilitarian Gothic prose and feature morally-conflicted, but sympathetic, narrators in situations that can range from socially uncomfortable to outright supernatural.
I like to think I’m a good person, unless you consider smuggling drugs to be evil. It’s purely for myself and my friends. I don’t work for a cartel that gives out Columbian neckties, and this is far from my usual habits. A musician is what I am. That is why I am on this plane, to fly across the country and collaborate with my dearest friend since grade school. I generally use FL studio instead of instruments. I’ve been obsessed with this kind of music since I saw a Glitch Mob concert as a teenager.
I planned to spend this flight composing, but it doesn’t look like that will be happening. My laptop just died. The charger, as well as my phone, are in the overhead compartment. I planned to finish some songs without distraction, but now, I’m stuck here for another hour and a half, with nothing to do. On my left is a teenager, glued to his own phone, all in baggy clothes. He’s wearing a septum piercing. Not quite the man I would trust with the dire responsibility of an exit row window seat, but I mustn’t judge. I’m being too snooty, especially for a drug smuggler.
Resolving not to waste my time with such petty thoughts, I pull the barf bag from the compartment in front of me and draw the five lines of a musical staff. I muffle my ears with my headphones, hold the pen above the barfbag, and try to sink deep inside myself for inspiration.
Without being plugged in, my headphones do a poor job of muting the outside world. The kid next to me is watching seven-second music videos, unplugged and loud; any tune I try to think of is immediately swamped.
Again, I must be the Buddah under the Bodhi tree. But I realize it is hopeless when I start to write down the notes of his song.
“Excuse me?” I say.
He ignores me.
Maybe I should just think of this as an exercise in stoicism. The headphones half-mute it anyway.
No, that’s no use.
He looks up, his stumpy thumb swiping past the same seven seconds, over and over.
“I don’t mean to be a bother,” I say. “But that’s distracting. Would you turn the volume down?”
“So I can concentrate on my work.”
He glances at the barf bag on my tray table.
“I’m trying to compose music,” I explain.
“Really?” he scoffs.
“Yes,” I continue. “And I can’t focus with those songs of yours in my head.”
“You’ve got headphones on, though.”
“Yes, well, I’m not listening to anything.”
“Then why are you wearing headphones?”
“So… So I can focus.”
He stares at me blankly.
“…Alright, whatever,” he says, squinting at me and shaking his head.
He looks back to his phone. He turned the volume down to talk to me, but now he turns it even higher.
“Look, this isn’t too much to ask,” I say.
There’s a tap on my shoulder from the right. I look up to see the woman across the aisle from me, looking at me with creased eyebrows. Her dignified bearing makes me think I have an ally now.
“You bothering that kid?” she asks.
“I’m just trying to get him to turn his music down,” I say, too defensively.
She looks at me like I’m an inmate who thinks he’s in kindergarten.
“Hey, is this guy bothering you?” she asks the kid.
“Kind of,” the kid says.
“Pick on someone your own size, why don’t you?” she shakes her head at me. “You ought to be ashamed.”
“Ex… excuse me?” I stutter out.
“You’ve got headphones. You don’t need to listen to his music.”
“But… but I’m trying to compose a song, and it’s incredibly distracting!”
My voice gets indignantly high when I’m exasperated.
“Alright, Mozart,” she says, rolling her eyes. “You can put up with it for this flight. It’s only an hour and a half.”
Before I can say anything else, she puts her earbuds in and closes her eyes.
“Huh!” I chuckle awkwardly.
The kid is absorbed in his phone, but I see a slight smirk out of the corner of my eye.
I take a deep breath. I am above this. Teenager and woman both seem like unpleasant, dysfunctional people. They are worth pity, if anything.
I close my eyes, going away deep inside, only peeking out to put pen to barfbag. Yes, here is something unlike anything I have ever composed. Perhaps a little simple, but-
-I’ve just transcribed the kid’s pop-country-hip-hop song.
I crumble the barfbag, squeezing it until my knuckles go white. Throttle, crush, kill. Strangle him with barbed wire.
I had a little moment there. Calm. Why should the little worm elicit such a reaction? No, don’t even think of him – he doesn’t exist.
I open my eyes. He’s still absorbed in his phone. The woman across the aisle is looking at me with a mix of disgust and horror. Where does she get off, looking at me like that? She can’t possibly know what I was thinking… but that look wouldn’t be appropriate for anything else.
Maybe I really am overreacting.
No, my thoughts are my own. I’ve done nothing wrong.
What’s wrong with me, that I would let some punk teenager drive me to this?
I reach down to smooth out the barfbag. I’m an adult. I’ll do the stoic thing. Start over and pretend these two don’t exist.
My hand comes back sticky with caramel. The kid put wrappers from his snacks on my tray table.
Instead of strangling him, I sweep them back his way.
“Hey!” he complains.
“This is my space,” I say. “I can’t have you putting your trash here.”
“You can’t throw garbage at me!”
The woman from across the aisle grabs my shoulder, holding a finger in my face.
“I don’t know what your problem is,” she says. “But if you touch him-”
“Touching!” I blurt out. “Nobody said anything about touching!”
She grabs me by the collar. Her grip is pathetically sluggish and weak, but I think she knows that. She will cry assault the moment I brush her hand away. I’ve heard of this game. She knows it too, so well that she believes her own exaggerations, and if I resist, she will genuinely believe the story she tells of being manhandled by a molester on an airplane. What an exciting story I will make.
I shrink back.
“That’s right,” she says. “Leave him alone… What kind of monster tries to touch some child-”
“I haven’t touched anyone!” I snap.
This time, she shrinks back, like I was about to hit her. I notice the man to her right is casually pointing a phone camera at us. I can feel the heat rising in my face. But why should I feel ashamed?
“Are you seeing this?” I ask the cameraman.
He says nothing.
“I just asked the kid if he could turn his music down. I just asked if he could not put his trash on my tray-”
“But you have headphones,” he says.
Oh, that thin drop of smugness in his voice. Miniscule, like a spot of sewage in a bottle of wine. So self-assured, I can tell by the way he holds the phone. We’re stopping a crime today. We’re gonna be a famous good samaritan.
“I can still hear his music!” I exclaim. “Can’t you?”
“And you threw trash at him,” he says.
“He put it on my tray!”
“You didn’t have to throw it at him.”
“I didn’t even… Agh!”
The woman has pressed the button to call the stewardess, looking me dead in the eyes. I’m only getting more flustered, so I shut up and look away from them both.
The stewardess arrives, her expression neutral. Well, this is a good thing. An impartial party will surely take my side.
I begin to explain myself before she asks.
“I was trying to compose my music,” I begin.
“He, this teenager, I mean, kept listening to loud videos.”
“Uh huh. Can’t you just put on your headphones?”
“My computer’s dead.”
“So I can still hear the music.”
“You could have still used them to block out the sound,” the teenager puts in.
“Wait your turn!” I snap. “You can explain your side of the story once I’m done!”
The good samaritan is still recording me. Again, I’m turning bright red. Am I freaking out? That shouldn’t matter. I’m in the right here.
“Look,” I say, holding up my hands. “I don’t see why he can’t just turn down the volume. Please. This is ridiculous.”
The stewardess looks at me blankly.
“He tried to hit me,” the teenager says.
“I most certainly did not!”
“He tried to slap me when I put trash on his tray.”
“See! He admits to putting his wrappers in my space!”
“You really tried to hit him?” the stewardess asks.
“No!” I shout. “The little demon is lying!”
“He tried to scratch my eyes out. Didn’t you two see? That guy recorded the whole thing.”
“Well…” the woman hesitates. “He might have… I don’t know, I didn’t get a good look.”
“You had a front-row seat, you spineless harpy!” I say, slamming my fist down on the tray table.
The stewardess doesn’t know what to say. She’s taken a step back from me.
“I’m spineless?” the woman points her hand up her collarbone. “For standing up to your bullying?”
“This is ridiculous!” I hiss, scrunching my forehead, trying to quiet down.
“Is there a problem here?”
A bald, broad man in a suit stands in the aisle.
“This guy here tried to slap a kid,” the stewardess says.
“I didn’t,” I sigh out, feeling like I just drop-kicked a baby in front of Queen Elizabeth.
“What’s your name?” the bald man asks.
“Laurance Orwell, Federal Air Marshal,” he pulls out a notebook. “What is your name?”
“I… Sebastian Kirby.”
“Really? Is that your real name?”
“Have you been drinking today, Mr. Kirby?” he leans in, quietly sniffing my breath.
“Just a gin and tonic… to calm my nerves for composing, you know.”
“Are you a registered sex offender, Mr. Kirby?”
The question is so absurd, I forget to answer it.
“Hey,” he puts a hand on my shoulder. “I’m asking if you have a record of hurting children.”
“I would never…”
“What happened here?”
“I just wanted him to turn down his music…” I’m afraid to speak, afraid I might get choked up.
“I’m gonna check the database on you,” he says. “If you come back clear, I’ll let you off the hook. Unless you make me come back here.”
He leaves. So does the stewardess, giving me a disgusted look over her shoulder as she goes.
He won’t find anything on me. I should be happy to have come through a confrontation with an air marshal without him suspecting what I’m smuggling. But I still feel so shaky, I almost regret wasting the barfbag. Don’t you dare cry. The teenager is still watching his videos as if nothing has happened. He doesn’t care about any of this, but I know if I look to my right, I’ll see smug vindication on the woman’s face, and that will start the waterworks.
I’m not a bad person. They say if you run into bad people all day, it says more about you than them. Well, maybe I really did just have a streak of bad luck. Yes, they couldn’t possibly know the violence I wanted to commit on the kid. But does that matter? I wanted to do those things, so far beyond proportion to what he did.
Would I have done them if I could get away with it? Now, no. But in the heat of the moment? I cannot say, which probably means yes.
But this is all so ridiculous. The President of the United States probably wonders about unleashing nuclear armageddon on a whim. Who isn’t entitled to some intrusive thoughts now and then?
Maybe they could smell it on me. They can tell I’m not one of them, that I don’t belong in civilized company.
I look to my left. The emergency exit lever hangs off the teenager’s index finger. He lets it go, and it slams into the wall.
I blink. He wouldn’t This has been an absurd day, but teenage punks don’t just depressurize commercial airlines. I would have heard about it on the news. Would it kill everyone? It would surely suck his ardent defenders and I out of the wall. Who knows? It might disorient the plane, peppering us all across the Midwest. Why have professional terrorists not thought of this before?
“Stop that,” I hiss, below the ambience. “You know what that does?”
He doesn’t look up, nor does he look at the lever as he pulls it again. He holds it up for longer this time. Or maybe he’s pulling it even further.
“You open that, we both get sucked out the window,” I say. “Everyone on this plane probably dies.”
“Please,” I whisper. “Please stop. I’m begging you.”
He glances at me, gives the slightest flash of a smile, and returns to his fiddling.
I consider my options.
Nobody around me, not the woman, not the good samaritan, not Laurance Orwell with his shiny fucking head (calm, language,) is going to help me. I know how I could stop this. I could do it in a moment, but I’m not sure I have the courage. Is that detestable? If I do it, I will be arrested, Orwell will find my stash of drugs, and I will almost certainly go to a maximum security prison. I have a pretty good idea of what would happen to a twig like myself in that place.
I consider the people around me. They would never know, never appreciate the sacrifice. They would speak of me as a madman at dinner parties for years to come. Why should I ruin my life on behalf of these fools? There must be some good people on this plane. By the numbers, there must be.
That one sounded different. Deeper. I’m almost afraid not to do it. In fact, I think I have no right to do anything else.
Still, I’m scared. I know if I think of the full ramifications of what I won’t be able to do after today, I’ll lose my nerve, and then we’re all doomed.
“I had a moment of weakness back there,” I say. “I begged you, when I shouldn’t have. Society rots when we let petty bullies push us around. So I’m not sorry. I’m asking you one more time; stop playing with that lever, or you’ll regret it.”
The woman is looking at me like I just tore off my shirt and started howling at the moon. There’s fear in her eyes. She doesn’t control me anymore, and I take immense satisfaction over that.
I look back to the teenager.
I grab his right hand, pull it to my mouth, and bite down on his second row of knuckles. I find the joints on the first try. His eyes go wide when he realizes what I’m about to do.
When I do it, it’s easy, like biting through baby carrots. My mouth fills with salt and iron.
He screams. I spit his fingers out, then grab his other hand. He fights with all his mortal strength, but it is not enough. Now he’s crying, blubbering for me to stop. Out of sheer malice, I want to rip out his septum piercing. But no, this is not about revenge. This is about practicality. He won’t be able to endanger the entire flight with no fingers. He can keep his impudent nose.
I take his thumbs last, joint by joint, so I don’t gag on them. Now, he’s really bawling. I’ve already accepted how severely limited my future will be, but he hasn’t.
I wipe the blood from my chin and wait patiently for Laurance to come with his justice. The good samaritan is scrambling to record me again, and the woman is screaming, backing as far away from me as she can get. They don’t matter anymore.