Rosa is pushing all the buttons.
She makes the seat go backwards and forwards, the leg rest up and down, in and out, lights on, lights off, TV screen up, TV screen down.
We’ve never been in business class. Rosa has to explore everything and figure out what she’s allowed to do and how to get away with what she isn’t.
The flight attendants love her. Flight attendants always love Rosa. Most strangers do. She’s ten years old with blonde ringlets, big blue eyes, and dimples she can turn on and off like, well, like pushing a button.
Rosa looks like a doll; Rosa is not a doll.
She’s in the window seat, which means there’s me between her and any potential victims. For the moment she’s enjoying the buttons. She can get lost like that, pushing buttons, counting sand, calculating angles, figuring out how things work, how to make them work for her.
I’m hoping she’ll be distracted all the way to New York City. It’s not a strong hope. The flight is long: Rosa will get bored, she’ll look for ways to make trouble without Sally and David, our parents, finding out. That’s the game she plays. My job is to stop her.
Business class will keep her occupied longer than economy ever did. It is pretty sweet. I can stretch out. When I reach forward I can barely touch the seat in front. Nothing bangs into my knees. If only there were a gym. If only the plane was headed home to Sydney.
‘I wonder how hard it would be to open the emergency exit.’ Rosa is staring at the safety card.
‘For you? Impossible. You’re too small. Besides, no one can get them open when a plane is in flight.’ I don’t know if that’s true. I’m sure Rosa will look it up later and tell me.
‘What about setting the plane on fire?’
She wouldn’t be saying any of this if Sally and David could hear. But they’re in the row in front of us and the low hum of the engines swallows our words. I can hear everything Rosa says, the click and buzz of the buttons she pushes, the creak of her seat, and she can hear me; but we can’t hear anyone else’s words and no one can hear ours.
Is she going to ask about blowing up the plane?
‘I wish we’d stayed in Bangkok.’
I doubt that. Rosa never seems to care where in the world the parentals drag us: New Zealand, Indonesia, Thailand, back home to Australia. It’s all the same to her.
‘Six months wasn’t enough for you?’ Six months is a long time for us to stay anywhere.
‘I’ll miss Apinya.’
I cut a look at Rosa but say nothing. Apinya is not going to miss her. Not after what Rosa made her do. When we said our farewells Apinya clung to her mother, crying, and refusing to let go. Her parents thought she was distraught at losing Rosa. I knew it was because Apinya was scared of her.
Rosa turns back to the buttons, pushing each one over and over. She’s waiting for me to tell her to stop. That’s not going to happen. I plug my headphones into my phone and start a Flying Fists podcast–I saved five for the plane—while reading through the last few texts from my besties, Jason, Georgie and Nazeem. I tilt the phone so Rosa can’t see.
—She set anything on fire yet?
Funnier now that Rosa’s asked about it. I wish Georgie were here. Jason and Nazeem too. I miss them. They’re the only ones I can talk to about Rosa. Even if only Georgie believes me.
Halfway through the second podcast, a special on Muhammad Ali, Rosa pokes me in the arm.
‘Yes, Rosa?’ I slip the headphones to my neck.
‘I’ve been good and kept my promises.’
I snort. Rosa mostly keeps her promises by finding loopholes. She’ll be a terrifying lawyer.
‘I should get to do one tiny bad thing.’
‘Being good is not a game, Rosa.’ Everything is a game to Rosa.
Rosa dimples at me though she knows I’m immune.
‘I should get a reward for being good.’
‘My not telling the parentals is your reward.’
‘But you have told them.’
‘Not about what you did to Apinya.’
I used to tell the parentals everything Rosa did. I’ve stopped. They’re convinced her acting out—yes, that’s what they call it—is normal for a kid her age. Besides, they always say, she’s much better than she was. No, she’s much better at hiding what she is. As far as they’re concerned Rosa had a problem. They took her to doctors, therapists, specialists, who cured her. Problem solved. Now she’s a bit socially awkward and it’s our job to help her by not making it a big deal.
‘There wasn’t anything to tell. I didn’t do anything.’
I’m not going to say for the billionth time that making someone do something awful is as bad as doing it yourself.
‘Other people do bad things all the time.’
‘You’re not—’ I begin.
‘Look at that old man. He’s being bad.’
Across the aisle a middle-aged guy in a business suit is waving to get a flight attendant’s attention. He gulps down an amber-coloured drink as if it were water.
‘Drinking like that is bad,’ Rosa says, primly. ‘That’s his seventh one.’ She crosses her arms as if she’s made a brilliant point. ‘Why aren’t they refusing to give him more? Or putting him in plane jail?’
‘There is no plane jail.’
‘He’s bothering that woman,’ Rosa says as if she cares.
The man is now leaning into the woman next to him, which is hard to do. In business class instead of a narrow armrest there’s a table between the seats. The woman is leaning as far away as she can. She has headphones on and a book in her hands.
I wonder if I should do something. Maybe the man will be ashamed if a seventeen-year-old boy calls him on his shitty behaviour.
Before I can get up a flight attendant stops next to us. She doesn’t turn to the drunk, she turns to Rosa. ‘You called, young lady?’ she asks, leaning forward to turn off the attendant light.
Rosa beams, dimpling, and making her ringlets bounce.
The flight attendant can’t help but return the smile.
‘I’m fine, but I don’t think that woman is.’ Rosa points past the flight attendant. ‘That man is annoying her. Is there something you can do? My brother says you don’t have plane jail, but if you do you should put him in it. He’s a bad man.’
The flight attendant turns her palms out apologetically. ‘No plane jail, I’m sorry, but it’s sweet of you to be worried. Let me investigate.’
She smiles at Rosa again.
‘I like your earrings,’ Rosa says. They’re gold-and-red-jewel studs that sit flat against the woman’s lobes.
‘Thank you.’ The flight attendant heads up the aisle.
‘See?’ Rosa says. ‘I do care about other people. I helped her. What’s my reward?’
‘Helping someone else is your reward.’
Rosa rolls her eyes. An expression she saves for me. ‘I think the flight attendant should give me her earrings.’
I lean back in my seat and return to the Muhammad Ali special. He’s still Cassius Clay and an amateur.
Rosa watches a movie. I don’t angle my head to see what it is. Maybe it’ll keep her from pressing buttons for a while. Cassius Clay has just won a gold medal at the Olympics.
The drunk man is swaying in the aisle. He stumbles, grabbing the side of my seat to steady himself. He reeks of alcohol and stale sweat.
‘Hey, little girl,’ he says, staring at Rosa. ‘Pretty hair. Just like Shirley Temple. I bet you don’t know who . . .’
Rosa sticks her tongue out at him.
‘She knows who Shirley—’ I say, but the drunk has already pushed himself into a stumble towards the toilets. He doesn’t seem to be able to hold one thought for long.
The flight attendant Rosa spoke to walks down the other aisle and crouches to talk to the woman the drunk was harassing. We can’t hear what she says, but soon the woman gathers her things and follows the attendant to the front of the plane.
‘They’re putting her in first class,’ Rosa says. ‘I did that. I saved her. They should put me in first class too. That should be my reward.’
My turn to roll my eyes.
‘The McBrunights should have put us in first class,’ Rosa says. ‘They’re rich. I bet they travel first class.’
The McBrunights are Sally and David’s oldest friends. They’ve known each other since they were my age. They are flying us to New York City to start a business. My parents have started many businesses. They specialise in it. They start them, then sell them, and walk away.
‘They’ve moved her, but how are they going to punish him, Che? I wish there was a plane jail.’
‘They’ll probably spit in his coffee.’
‘That’s not enough.’
‘I was kidding, Rosa. They won’t do that.’
‘The world doesn’t always work that way, little sister.’
‘How doesn’t the world work?’ Sally asks, leaning over me to give Rosa a kiss. ‘How are my darling children?’
‘Business class is the best,’ Rosa says. ‘I like rich–people seats. Let’s always fly like this.’
Sally laughs. ‘I wish.’
‘You can get the McBrunights to pay,’ Rosa says. ‘Though you should tell them to put us in first class next time.’
‘I want to see it. Imagine how many buttons there must be.’ Rosa pushes one to straighten the back of her seat, then pushes it to make it go down.
‘You’ve tested all the buttons, I see.’
Doesn’t she always, I don’t say.
‘David did the same thing and now he’s sound asleep.’
Sally and I exchange smiles. David can sleep anywhere.
‘I’m going to watch all the movies,’ Rosa says.
‘Do you need to go to the toilet?’
‘Sally!’ Rosa says. ‘I’m ten, not two. I can go by myself.’
Sally holds her hands up. ‘Fine. Fine. You can go by yourself.’ She lowers her voice to whisper in my ear. ‘Keep an eye on her.’
I always do.
Sally leans over to kiss Rosa, then gives me a swift hug. ‘Get some sleep!’
The reek of alcohol returns.
‘He’s a very bad man.’ Rosa watches him stumble into his seat. ‘He hasn’t been punished,’ she says, before closing her eyes and falling asleep immediately. Just like David.
Across the aisle the drunk man has passed out. His mouth is open. I’m pretty sure he’s snoring.
I work my way through the fight movies, hoping to fall asleep before I run out. I think about everything I told myself I wouldn’t think about. Like how we’re heading to New York City, not home. How long it’ll be before I can go back to Sydney. How I’m turning seventeen not long after we land. It’ll be just me and Rosa and the parentals. Yet another shit birthday. I’ve had too many.
Mostly I think about how Rosa is never going to understand why I make her keep so many promises. How can I make her see that being good isn’t a game?
I can’t sit still. The air smells like recycled plastic. I drink the last of my water but my mouth stays dry.
After checking Rosa’s asleep I go to the area between business and economy. The curtains are drawn. There’s a white plastic bar with white plastic stools that swivel. I pour myself more water, bracing my foot against the base of the stool to stretch my calf. I drink, switch legs, pour myself more. Four glasses later and my tongue still sticks to the roof of my mouth.
I drop to the ground to do some push-ups. Just a quick set of twenty. Someone might try to walk past, Rosa might wake up.
I make a circuit of the business-class cabin. David is sleeping. Sally is reading. She smiles when she sees me, squeezes my hand, turns back to her book. Rosa hasn’t shifted position. Her mouth is slightly open, and she’s breathing softly and evenly. She looks like an angel.
I walk through economy where everyone is crammed into tiny seats that barely go back, yet most are asleep. I’ve never been able to sleep here. I’ve never been able to sit still long enough, and I was always flying with Rosa next to me, making me twitch as I waited for whatever it was she was going to do next.
I stayed up most of the night before the flight talking to Georgie, Jason and Nazeem; not talking about Rosa, but knowing I could if I needed to. We’ve known each other since we were five. We met in a kids’ kickboxing class. Well, Georgie, Jason and I did. Nazeem was Jason’s best friend at school back then. Soon we were all best friends.
It’s going to be harder staying in touch from New York. Sydney and Bangkok are only a few hours apart, but New York is more than half a day behind.
I do another circuit of business, though I’m worrying I’ve left Rosa alone too long. My heart beats a little faster, but there she is, sound asleep. Sally’s asleep too. Everyone but me.
I watch another movie. There isn’t a single fight in it.
We’re going to be last off the plane. We always are, because David doesn’t believe in rushing. It doesn’t matter how close to jumping out of my skin I am, how desperate to stretch my legs, to run, we have to go at David’s pace.
As we finally step onto the air-bridge, the drunken—now hungover—man, red in the face and panting, pushes past us to get back on.
‘What a rude man,’ Sally says.
I almost join her. We’ve made it all this way without Rosa doing anything.
After an hour of going through immigration and getting our luggage we’re ushered into the biggest car I’ve ever been in. Rosa and I sit in the back row. There are TV screens and a remote and bottles of water and tissues and bags of nuts. It’s almost like being on the plane again. I have an urge to scream.
The parentals sit in the middle row where there’s a little fridge and discuss whether wine is a bad idea and decide reluctantly that it is.
Rosa pushes buttons. I stare out the window even though all I can see is the car parked beside us. My eyes burn. Even my toenails are tired.
‘More rich-people buttons.’
‘All cars have buttons for the windows,’ I mutter without looking at her.
‘Raining out there,’ the driver calls from the front as he starts the car. ‘Might want to keep that window up.’
Rosa pushes the up button.
Once the car is on the highway all we can hear is the roar of the engine, the traffic, the wind rushing past. I sink back, staring out at grim, wet darkness, punctuated with occasional smears of coloured lights. I doubt I’ll be able to see the New York City skyline. I’m not sure I care, which kind of sucks.
It’s going to be my seventeenth birthday in a bit over an hour, which sucks worse: turning seventeen far from home, without my friends.
I close my eyes and drift away.
‘Want to see something?’ Rosa says right into my ear.
I startle. ‘What?’
Rosa’s grinning, which is never good. I am all the way awake.
The window next to her is open a crack, spitting in rain.
‘Close the window, Rosa.’
She slides a small book out of her backpack, turning it so I can see the front.
An Australian passport. She opens it to the photo page: the horrible drunk from the plane.
I lunge as Rosa pushes it out the window.
‘I win,’ Rosa says.