Leslie rubbed her temples with one hand as she made her way to the plane. She had a throbbing headache that reminded her of the night she had spent partying at one of the trendy clubs the night before.
«Amy!» called Leslie when she saw her flight companion. «Please tell me you have headache pills.»
Amy looked at Leslie and rolled her eyes.
«Of course I have them, but you should know better than to go out partying the night before a cross-country flight.»
«What else am I supposed to do, visit museums?» Leslie sighed. «At least partying keeps me distracted.»
Amy gave Leslie a friendly nudge and the women boarded the plane together.
Leslie and Amy immediately set to work preparing to board the passengers, then did the safety demonstration and made sure all the passengers were settled.
Finally, Leslie crawled into the kitchen and took her headache pills.
«I wonder if Amy would mind if I lay down in the break room for a while,» Leslie thought.
She was on her way to talk to her colleague when a strange sound stopped her in her tracks.
She paused, listening intently. A moment later, she decided she must have imagined it. Maybe Amy was right when she said she was partying too much. She had already planned to go to several nightclubs when they landed, but maybe she should take it easy that night.
As Leslie walked past the bathroom door, she heard a high-pitched meow again. There was no way there was a cat on the plane, so it had to be a crying child. She knocked on the bathroom door. When no one answered, she opened it and peeked inside. A second later, she screamed.
A moment later, she realized that the trembling lump that frightened her was a small child hugging his knees and crying uncontentedly.
«Why are you crying?» asked Leslie to the boy who had surprised her. «What are you doing here?»
The boy squeezed his knees even tighter and continued to cry. Now that the shock had worn off, Leslie felt worried about the boy. She crouched down in front of him.
«You gave me a fright. I’m Leslie, what’s your name?»
«My name is Ben,» the boy whispered.
Leslie helped him up. She let him sit in one of the crew seats while she looked up his name on the passenger list. It was probably the boy’s first time on a plane, and he didn’t seem to enjoy it.
Leslie frowned. She checked the passenger list, but couldn’t find the boy’s name. It had been too long since she had last had to comfort a child. The thought filled her with homesickness, but now was not the time to dwell on that. She sat down next to Ben and put her hand on his arm.
«Ben, honey, are you lost? I can help you if you tell me where to find your family.»
Ben let out a sob. Leslie realized he was hugging a paper bag to his chest. It set her nerves on edge because of all the horror stories she’d heard about substances being carried on flights.
«What’s in the bag, Ben?» asked Leslie.
«It’s Grandma’s medicine,» the boy replied. «She’s going to die without this medicine, and it’s going to be my fault!».
Over the next few hours, Leslie managed to get the whole story out of Ben. He was the youngest of a large family. While his older brothers spent most of their time playing sports and getting into trouble, Ben dreamed of being a scientist.
His mother did not appreciate the consequences of Ben’s quest to discover a cure for all diseases. He expected his mother to be proud of him and give him a hug, but instead she made him sit in a corner.
«I just want her to look at me with the same love and pride that she looks at my older siblings when they do well. That’s why I stole Grandma’s medicine bag,» the boy sobbed.
When Ben’s grandmother fell ill, the family decided to visit her and bring her medicine. The little boy had been separated from his family at the airport. Eventually he had returned to see his mother and followed her to the plane.
«But she wasn’t my mother,» Ben lamented. «And now I’m on the wrong plane. I wanted to be the hero who gave Grandma her medicine, but now I’m the bad guy. She’s going to die because of me.»
Leslie had alerted all the relevant authorities when the plane landed. She felt terrible for Ben, but when she learned about the arrangements the airline had made for him, she was shocked.
She stared at the boy she now had to take care of and with whom she had to share the hotel room. It wasn’t fair. She had made a list of clubs to visit, and now she had to babysit.
She sent messages to Amy and her other colleague, Brandon, but neither was willing to watch Ben for her. She had even thought about finding a local babysitter, but realized she couldn’t afford one.
They were quietly eating a pizza Leslie had ordered for dinner when her phone rang. She answered and her heart stopped as she heard what the caller said.
«Is my baby sick?» asked Leslie. «What happened, Mom, Joe was fine the last time we talked, did you take him to the doctor?»
«Yes,» Leslie’s mother replied.
«And he has referred us to a specialist. We have an appointment for later this week. They mentioned a genetic disease and they may also need you to come in for testing, since you are his mother.»
«Whatever it takes, as long as my child gets better,» Leslie replied.
When the call ended, Leslie cried. She wished with all her heart that she could wrap her son in her arms, smell his soft, curly hair and tell him everything would be okay.
Unfortunately, Joe was far away. Her flight schedule hadn’t taken her home for over a month. As much as she tried to forget the homesickness she felt for her son by going out partying and getting drunk, nothing could keep her heart from aching.
«Miss Leslie?» Ben reached over and put his hand on her arm. «I think you should have this for your son.»
Leslie felt another wave of tears assail her as she looked at the bag of medicine Ben held out to her.
«If I can’t save my granny, I can at least help you,» Ben said. «Take them to Joe so he can get healthy again.»
«I have a better idea.» Leslie started typing on her phone. «I’m going to take you to your grandmother, Ben. Afterwards, I’m going home, to see my son.»
Leslie booked a plane ticket for Ben on her own. She then arranged permission and managed to accompany him on his flight to his grandmother’s house.
«I’m scared,» Ben said as he and Leslie boarded the flight. «What if Grandma is already dead because of my mistake? Then Mom will never love me.»
Leslie tousled the boy’s hair.
«Your mother has always loved you, Ben, and she always will. That’s what parents do. I’m sure she’s been worried sick and will be glad to see you safe.»
Ben didn’t seem to believe her, even when his entire family rushed to embrace him when they arrived at the airport. Leslie watched as the boy’s mother smothered him with kisses and vowed never to ignore him again.
Unfortunately, Leslie’s reunion with her family was less joyful. She was surprised to see how pale and thin Joe looked since she last saw him. He felt so fragile in her arms.
That night Leslie stayed up late talking to her mother and going over the tests the doctors had run on Joe. She felt overwhelmed, helpless and incredibly guilty.
Leslie went into Joe’s room and snuggled up next to him. She buried her face in his soft, perfumed hair and promised him, herself and God to do whatever it took to see her son healthy and happy again.
As the days went by, Joe’s condition did not improve. The specialist could not figure out what was wrong with the boy. Meanwhile, he seemed weaker every day.
Leslie asked for extra days on her leave, but the airline was not very understanding. They refused to pay her for the time off, even though Joe was sick.
After another week of caring for Joe and paying for doctor’s visits, money was getting tight. Leslie’s mother was drawing a pension, but it wasn’t enough without her income as a flight attendant.
«Maybe I can get a job here,» Leslie said. «Maybe something that pays well.»
«It’s worth a try,» shrugged Leslie’s mother. «If it comes to it, I can sell the house.»
Just then, there was a knock at the door and everything changed. Leslie opened it to find a familiar face staring back at her.
«Ben?» She also noticed that the family she had recognized at the airport was with him. «Something wrong?»
«I have something for you and Joe.» Ben handed Leslie an envelope.
Leslie opened the envelope. Inside was a check. When Leslie saw the amount, she gasped.
«What is this? I can’t accept it,» she stammered. «It’s over a hundred thousand dollars.»
«We want you to keep it.» Ben’s mother stepped forward. «We started a campaign for my mother’s treatment, but she…». The woman put a hand to her mouth. «She passed away a few days ago.»
Ben’s father stepped forward and hugged his wife as she burst into tears.
«We decided together that we should give you the money, for Joe,» Ben continued.
«We also announced what we were planning to do in the crowdfunding campaign,» Ben’s father added, «so it’s all legal.»
Leslie pressed the check to her chest as tears welled up in her eyes.
«Thank you all so much,» she sobbed. «It’s the best gift I’ve ever received. I just hope it’s enough.»
Ben lunged forward and hugged Leslie’s legs.
«It will be enough, I’m sure! And when Joe is better someday, I’ll come back here and play with him.»
Leslie smiled and tousled the boy’s hair.
«You’ll always be welcome here, Ben.»
The check was almost the exact amount the boy needed. After countless doctors and treatments, Joe was back to his old self soon after. As Leslie watched him play with the neighbor’s dog in the front yard, she found it hard to imagine a time when he hadn’t been strong and full of laughter.
«And it’s all thanks to Ben,» she muttered.
The familiar sound of a plane overhead drew Leslie’s eyes skyward. She would soon be back to work. Besides, she had just thought of the perfect way to repay Ben’s family for their generosity.
She pulled out her phone and started making calls. The next day, she called Ben’s mother to tell her that the airline was offering her family a generous discount on all flights for the rest of their lives.