The lady stood in the kitchen, moving swiftly as she cut the vegetables. Her apron swayed when she shifted her weight, and she made piles of the lettuce. The door opened and she turned around to see a boy standing in the corner. His small shadow appeared on the wall, and his eyes darted around the room.
"Ben, I've asked you not to surprise me like that," she said. Another woman, Ben's mother, stood off to the side, nodding in agreement.
He looked at them for a moment and murmured, "Sorry, Mom. Sorry, Mrs. Smile."
"It's OK. Come in," Mrs. Smile apologized, reminding herself about Ben's shyness.
She frowned, remembering how talkative the boy had been, but that was before. . . She shook herself and tried to calm the frightening memories. Stop thinking about the accident, stop it, she thought. But Ben's happy words, "I'm going to Florida!" stayed in her mind, along with his smiling face talking to her son, Joe. If only the plane hadn't left, and the ten-year-old had not gotten on it. Debby Show, her good friend and Ben's mother, had changed because of that plane ride, too.
"Are there really new puppies?" Ben interrupted.
"Yes, go on back," Mrs. Smile replied, noticing the excitement in the boy's eyes. "Joe is in the back room."
Ben ran toward the small porch where Joe greeted him, picking up a puppy and handing it to his friend. "She's the runt," Joe said, scratching the yellow dog's ears. "My dad's going to put them in the store soon—just two weeks."
Ben stared at the dog, which was wiggling in his arms. "I wish I could have her."
"You know your mom is allergic," Joe said. He reached toward the litter, scooping a puppy into his cupped hands. Two others pawed, whining, at the topless, metal cage, and another one lay across the newspaper.
The boys stood together, not speaking, their eyes wandering around the room. The next day, Ben ran down the street and stopped at a building which had a sign that said, in big, red letters, "Alphabet Hobby Store." As he stood at the door, he remembered the beginning of the long, terrifying flight.
He had waved good-bye to his father, and his mother led him aboard the plane. She counted the rows until seventeen, and helped Ben settle comfortably near a window. The attendant's voice came over the loudspeaker: "Welcome aboard flight 187 with nonstop service to Orlando." She explained the safety directions, motioning to the exits.
The plane began to rise and his mother leaned over him, whispering in his ear, "Chew your gum." He nodded, looking out the window at San Francisco.
Now Ben opened the glass door, listening to the bells ring. "Joe?" he called. This store is so strange, he thought. He wandered among the overfilled shelves, looking at things he had never noticed before. The only shelves that weren't crowded were the ones containing food.
"Joe?" he said a little louder, his eyes darting down the aisles. He stopped and stared at a pile of pans, each marked with different prices on big green tags. The rows of colorful cups seemed wonderful, and he studied especially the shades of blue.
He could still see his mother flipping through magazines that she had pulled out of pockets in front of her. He played with a Game Boy, pressing the buttons quickly. The attendants gave him soda and lunch, which he ate slowly. Then he heard it. The thud. It sounded like thunder crashing to the ground.
Ben walked into another room, looking at the parrots who spoke to him, and the cats, who slept peacefully. Bags of dog food were laid in a pile, and he bent by an empty puppy cage.
Remembering where he was, Ben called, "Joe? Joe!"
"Yeah?" his friend appeared from a doorway, his straight hair bouncing as he walked. His faded jeans had holes in the knees and his oversized shirt was splattered with paint. "Sorry, I didn't go to your house. My dad wanted me to help him with the new shipment. We're also painting."
Ben nodded. "It's OK."
The boys wandered through the store, with Joe pointing at new supplies. He picked up a clock, opening a latch. A small, wooden bird popped out of the door, saying, "Cu cu."
When he walked home later, Ben kicked the dust on the sidewalk carelessly. A truck passed him and blew its loud horn, making him jump. The sound of bouncing inside the truck reminded Ben of luggage shifting on the plane.
The thumping noise surprised him again. "We're pointed down!" somebody shrieked, and the passengers began to scream. Their voices filled the plane, and Ben's heart pounded. Tears ran down his cheeks and his mother reached over, jerking at his seat belt, tightening it. When he looked over, she was weeping, her mouth moving in a cry for help.
Ben shook his head, trying to control himself. He entered his house, forcing himself to think of other things. Running up the stairs, he leaped on the bed and closed his eyes.
A week later Ben went back to the store. Joe sat on the floor, his back turned from the door. "Joe? What's wrong?" Ben cried. Joe slowly crawled in a circle and faced his friend. He wiped tears from his eyes with a muddy hand, ignoring his messy hair. "The store is going out of business," he managed to whisper.
Ben stopped, shouting, "No! It can't be!"
Joe nodded. "It is."
"Your Alphabet Hobby Store? That's impossible."
Sadly, Joe looked down. He picked up a small toy airplane, twirling it in his hand.
"Calm down, everyone," the pilot said over the loudspeaker. His voice was shaking. "The flight attendants will help you prepare for the crash landing."
Ben held his breath and tightly closed his eyes. He turned away from the window, not daring to look down, and waited to drop. People were screaming.
The flight attendants raced up and down aisles, speaking in soft, timid voices. Backpacks tumbled out of kids' arms, and the attendants would pick them up, showing the children how to put them securely under the seats. They made sure every chair was upright, and that each person knew what to do, and where to leave. Then they stopped running past Ben. They were sitting at the back of the plane, no longer offering help.
Ben wandered among the toys, touching small cars, looking at board games. Suddenly, Joe pulled him to the side, showing him a chair and saying, "Sit. I know you still think about the plane crash, but it's been two months and you need to get over it. Nobody died and only six people were hurt. It must have been scary, but you're lucky to be alive."
Ben nodded, remembering his mother rushing him away from the plane and the wailing babies.
He saw in his head a uniformed man walking toward them, saying that everyone was alive. His mother sat on the dirt in the big field, gasping for breath. The man tried to calm her, telling her that she was just panicking.
Later, a plump lady rushed around, introducing herself as Mrs. Todd, owner of the nearby farmhouse. She handed each of them an apple from a basket and showed them where to get water. Ben stayed seated, watching the emergency workers.
Joe spoke again, "You only think about how you almost died, right?"
Ben swallowed and murmured in a dry voice, "Yes."
"Think about how lucky you are to be alive, and just try to stop thinking about the crash."
Ben raced to his father's arms. "You're alive! You're alive!" the man shouted. His mother came close behind him, reaching out to hug her husband, beginning to relax.
He opened his eyes, testing Joe's suggestion. The tension inside him began to disappear, and when he looked at his friend, he felt his troubles were almost gone.
Although Joe's eyes stayed lowered, Ben smiled and turned to wait for the future.