The woman next to me is drizzling maroon sand on her tray table. She pinches it out of a leather pouch hanging around her neck, then rubs her thumb and forefinger together, like an insect calling for a mate, to release it. She's making a cross, the plus-sign kind, not the Christian. Unless the "push-back" from the gate threw her form off. "Push-back" is one of those terms flight attendants use when they think the passengers aren't listening. But I listen.

My seatmate wipes her fingertips on her t-shirt and pulls some light blue from the bag. She sifts it into diagonal lines like veins connecting the arteries of the cross. Now some purple veins, and now white.

The plane is taxiing. The colors slide into each other and the woman tries to keep them separate by blowing on them. We're supposed to have our tray tables stowed. The Playskool video screens have snapped down and the actor-passenger is showing the morons among us how to stow our tables. But my friend's busy swinging her pouch over the cross and muttering. Saliva bubbles on her b's and p's. Her tortoise-shell glasses slide down to the end of her nose which is small and pinkish like her eyes. We pivot onto the straightaway.

"Put your tray up," I whisper to Pinkish.

The engines power up. I can't get killed on this trip. I'm flying to Indianapolis to catch my grandmother's death. She has to hang on for another six hours so we can stand around her bed and hold hands. Or something. My mom didn't tell me the plan. Wear a skirt, she said. No tongue stud. Don't fuck this up too, in other words, like college or your sordid love life.

"Put it up," I say, and grab the armrests. We're rolling, rattling, rocking. The plane tips up. Plastic creaks, a litany of thunks and crackles. I smell smoke. The sand slides as we bank right but Pinkish grabs the tray and holds it, still swinging and babbling.

I reach for the flight attendant button, miss, try again. My fingers throb. Bong. No one comes. We bank right again, the wing pointing into San Francisco Bay. I gesture at the mess on Pinkish's tray with a "look what fabulous prizes you've won" kind of motion.

"Fucking put it up," I say. Pinkish glares at me. Spitting out one last word she sweeps the sand into a barf bag, leaving a heart-colored smear that looks three-dimensional. She wipes her hand on her shirt and folds the tray up.

"I was casting a protection spell," Pinkish says. "You look scared. I thought it would help."

It's now safe to use approved portable electronic devices. Plastic clunks all over as people pull their trays down.

"Thank you," I say.

"I didn't finish," she says.

Past Pinkish, past the thin man in the black sweater sleeping with his temple against the window, are thunderheads bigger than mountains.

About the author:

Ann Gelder teaches and manages a research program in international literatures at Stanford University. Her nonfiction work has appeared in Tin House.