Scarlet Fever

SF Cover

Scarlet shifted in her seat, looked at her mobile phone and twisted back into her previous position. Boredom had settled on her like a heavy, damp blanket two hours into the flight when she finished reading her novel. It was a six hour flight and she’d only packed one book.
The complete lack of distraction or stimulation felt like it was killing her slowly from the inside. It was a sign of how desperate Scarlet was that she did something she had never done before. She looked around for someone on the plane she could talk to.
It was an unspoken rule, almost and Eleventh Commandment, and Scarlet was sure she was not the only one who followed it; nobody talks to strangers during a flight. Bad enough, she thought, that people were packed together in a great flying sardine tin. Worse yet that there was less than no chance of having something in common with another passenger. Once you factored in stop-overs and connecting flights, economy versus first class, travel for family and tourism or business, it seemed to Scarlet like human soup, everyone mixed together in a random assortment of jumbled lives.
But the boredom was numbing her mind and she needed to talk to someone. On her left, in the window seat, a slightly tubby lady in her late sixties was dozing against the armrest. Scarlet looked at her for a moment, taking in her blonde hair faded almost white, and wondered whether she had been beautiful when she was younger. She had done her makeup before boarding, there was a smudge of lipstick on the cuff of her blouse, so clearly she was someone who took care of her appearance.
The cruise brochure sticking out of the seat pocket suggested that she might be hoping to meet a male companion during her holiday. There had only been the usual safety card and in-flight magazine in front of Scarlet’s seat. I was fun trying to make observations about her neighbour, but she was aware of how awkward be if the lady woke up to fin Scarlet staring at her.
The man on her right seemed more promising. At least, Scarlet thought, he was awake. Her first guess was that he was a holidaymaker traveling with his family, but she hadn’t seen him even look at another passenger.
“Hi, I’m Scarlet. Are you going on holiday with family?”
He couldn’t have looked more shocked in Scarlet’s mind if she had hopped onto his lap and started singing Christmas jingles. His eyes widened as he turned to look at her, mouth slightly agape, as though he couldn’t believe someone was actually trying to start up a conversation mid-flight. There was genuine panic in his expression as he seemed to momentarily forget how those exchanges usually went.
“Yes.” He said in an oddly high-pitched voice. “Sorry, I mean no. I was going back, or rather I was home seeing relatives. Now I’m going back. I work in Manaus.”
“Oh that’s interesting.” Scarlet said, not needing to pretend to be intrigued. Nothing about his appearance suggested he was an international businessman. In fact, she had noticed that he didn’t carry a briefcase onto the plane, only a small backpack stuffed full to bursting. “So what is it you do?”
“I work for a large commercial organisation.” He furrowed his brows in a frown, as if frustrated with himself. “Sorry, I’m not really allowed to say more. It’s quite sensitive.”
“Ah, right.” Scarlet muttered in a blank tone. “Do you mind if I get up for a minute?”
She gestured vaguely down the aisle towards the toilets. He stretched out of his seat and let her shuffle past. Scarlet scowled as she walked between the rows of seats. She guessed that the man had been flattered by the attention of a younger woman and decided to try his hand at being mysterious. The way he had spoken made it sound like he was a spy, or wanted to be one. Her mood was sour and hadn’t improved by the time she left the bathroom.
But something distracted Scarlet as she wandered back to her seat, stumbling through a juddering patch of turbulence. The man in the aisle seat looked even more nervous than when she had initiated their short-lived conversation. A Latin American woman, tall with stooped shoulders and tear-soaked cheeks, was clinging to his arm. The man was nearly writhing with discomfort.
“Please, mister.” The grey-haired woman said in a frantic voice. “Tell me what you know. You must know something. My son, my grandchildren. What’s happening to them?”
A flight attendant had arrived on the scene, wearing an expression of canned calm. It was the same look all airline employees bore, one which told travellers that nothing was wrong. That look always worried Scarlet, making her think that they were hiding some impending threat from her.
“Madam, please go back to your seat.”
“No, but I heard this man talking. He works for the company. They know what is happening where my family lives, let me ask him.”
Scarlet decided to intervene. A part of her felt sympathetic towards the old grandmother, but more than that it seemed like a situation which could easily provide a few hours of distraction. The flight attendant had managed to chivvy the lady back to a vacant seat in the rear of the plane. Scarlet followed them and waited until the stewardess had moved away, suspecting that she might be breaking some airline rule.
“Excuse me.” Scarlet said. The woman’s tear-streaked face turned towards her with a despairing look. “I heard what you were saying before. Is there something I can do to help?”
“Please.” She whispered, reaching up with a quaking, wrinkled hand to hold Scarlet’s. “Something terrible is happening. My family lives in the rainforest, at a tourist lodge in the jungle, and I haven’t heard from them in weeks. Please, look at this.”
She pulled a crumpled sheet of paper out from her battered handbag. It was a printout from a website, the layout similar to that Scarlet had seen on news sites, but the writing was all in Portuguese and she couldn’t understand a word of it.
Her eyes snagged on a black and white photograph stretched across the top of a page. It had that obscure, abstract appearance Scarlet always saw in monochrome pictures. For a while, she couldn’t even tell what it was. Then a small detail emerged, someone’s grey big toe nudging out from the bottom of a crumpled tarpaulin. Gnarled tree roots were twisted around the edge of the image. Scarlet realised that she was looking at a picture of a dead body.
Using her very basic knowledge of other languages and some guesswork, she translated the headline.
“Mysterious deaths in heart of rainforest. Cause unknown. Hundreds missing.”


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