I would be the first to admit that I was scared of heights. Flying, I’d say, was for the birds, and the other winged beings that coasted the skies with them. That was why, on the day my life was going to change forever, I sat with my hands clenched tightly along the airline seat’s armrest, and waited in horrible anticipation for the plane to take off.
“Don’t worry,” the man beside me said. “It’s only bad at first.”
The nervous laughter his words inspired from me was enough to make the man chuckle.
“Sorry,” I said, and turned my eyes toward the window in an attempt to avoid his gaze.
“Don’t be,” he replied. “First time?”
“First time. On a plane.”
“Sort of,” I replied, unwilling to admit that it was not, in fact, the first time I’d been in one.
He chuckled and said, “I see.”
When I returned my gaze to him in the moments thereafter, I found that he was not staring at me like I’d expected him to. Rather, the smartly-dressed man in the dark jeans and green blazer was reading something on the tablet in his grasp—his lips pursed, his gaze set. It took only a moment for me to realize that he was fully immersed in what he was doing, and was likely only giving me the benefit of the doubt because of my age.
It was only a day after my eighteenth birthday and I was already leaving home.
Just remember, I thought, that this is your time to shine.
I’d taken to calling the day “The Emancipation of Dean McAllen,” but not just because I was leaving home to pursue my dream of becoming a writer.
I was leaving to escape a truly haunting past.
As the plane started to roll down the runway, and as my anxiety took hold like a beast intent on dragging me to the darkest depths of Hell, I could feel the knot in my chest tightening like a vice, and tried my hardest to keep my emotions in check. You would’ve thought that, after being on no less than three planes in a row, I would’ve gotten used to the sensation of a plane lifting off the ground.
“Hey,” the man beside me said. “Are you all right?”
“I’m—” I started to say. “Fine. I—”
A series of images bombarded me out of nowhere.
They’d called me all sorts of names—both my parents—and tried their hardest to keep me there. They’d yelled. They’d screamed. They’d said that I’d never make it on my own. But I’d said no, that that was wrong, that that was not okay, and in the end, had locked myself in my room with one promise, and one promise only:
I was eighteen, and I was done.
I’d spent most of the night listening to the sound of my mother crying in the room opposite mine while I’d waited for my father to take a screwdriver and remove the hinges from my door—an act that, on any normal day back then, and after any typical argument, would’ve been completely familiar.
Somehow, though, I’d managed to make it through that night.
And there I’d been: on my last plane to South Texas.
Beside me, the man looked on with cautious eyes, his mouth slightly agape as he considered the sight of me hoping, to whatever God might’ve been listening, that I would survive the plane ride. I tried not to hyperventilate in that moment, and for that reason, found myself breathing slowly, in through my mouth and out my nose.
“Sir,” he said. “Are you all right?”
“I’m okay,” I replied. “I—”
The plane lifted in the air.
I almost cried out.
But I didn’t. Instead, I merely exhaled, long and hard, before turning to look at the man beside me with gritted teeth.
He merely smiled before saying, “I told you.”
“Told me what?” I replied.
“That it wasn’t that bad.”
“Oh,” I said, then replied, “Thank you” before straightening my posture and leaning back in my seat. “I don’t mean to be a bother.”
“You’re not, young man.” The gentleman leaned back in his seat and considered me for a moment before adding, “I take it you’re leaving home for the first time?”
“How do you—”
He smiled, cutting me off before I could finish. “I’m a counselor. It’s my job to read people.”
“I see,” I said.
He turned his head back to his tablet. “Where are you heading, friend?”
“Edinburg,” I replied.
“What takes you there?”
“Do you mind if I ask what you’ll be studying?”
“Ah. A patron of the arts.” The man leaned back and appeared to consider the situation for a moment before turning his head to look out the window beside me. “See those clouds out there?”
“I’d rather not,” I admitted, but turned my head to look anyway. We were above them now, and coasting the currents as if we were little more than the birds I once believed were the only ones meant to fly.
“The skies are your limit, friend. I don’t know what’s happened in your life to make you so afraid, but I’ll promise you something: they’ll get better.”
Would they, though? It seemed impossible for them not to, all things considering. But then and there, it felt like I’d forever be trapped in the past.
No, I then thought. I wasn’t trapped in the past. I wouldn’t be. I was moving forward—toward the next phase in my life.
And as I reminisced on everything that’d happened, I realized something:
Things could only get better from there.