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The man selected a window seat, stuffed his shoulder bag under the seat in front of him, pulled out a bestseller and began to read. A college student chose the aisle seat and quickly buried his face in a thick calculus text. The middle seat remained empty until the last stand-by passengers were herded aboard, and a skinny little girl with corn rows slid between the two men.

The man returned to his book as the plane clawed into the air. The story, about a tortured Southern gentleman who had fallen in love with a 16-year-old girl, made his eyelids droop. Outside the window, an unbroken bank of clouds slid underneath the vibrating wing as the horizon turned a brilliant pink.

Her feet dangling over the edge of her seat, the little girl stretched for the in-flight magazine, flipped through the pages and stuffed it back into the seat pocket. She peered around her neighbor to look out the window, then rummaged around in a shopping bag, pulled out an oversized chocolate chip cookie, took one bite and dumped it back into the bag.

She's bored, the man thought, remembering what it was like to be that young and sitting on an airplane all alone. Ask her where she's going, if she's ever flown before, he told himself. But he had never been comfortable with strange children, and he didn't really feel like talking. If his neighbor had been another adult he would have just stared out the window thinking about work until they landed in San Diego.

He had become a reporter 10 years before because he thought it was a way to do something more than just earn a paycheck and pay his bills. Now he felt like all those people he never wanted to be, the ones who just put in their eight hours, head home, eat dinner, watch TV, then go to bed, so they can get up and do it again. Today was typical. Two cop briefs, because the cop reporter just quit, and a nice little feature story that he had liked until his spacy editor rewrote the lead for his own, unknown reasons. The job was safe and secure, but as each day passed his opportunities dwindled and he felt as if he would never move on to something better. Nothing, these days, seemed to work out right. Even this trip to see old friends from college was starting off badly. The plane was late and he wouldn't be able to meet them for dinner as he had planned.

From the speaker overhead came the overly friendly voice of a male flight attendant.

"How're you all doing tonight? Sorry for the delay. To make it up to you, we're going to play a little game. I've got a prize up here for the person who's got the oldest penny. If you've got an old penny on you, just reach up and push the call button."

The man thought about reaching into his pocket and sifting through the handful of change the clerk had handed him after he bought his turkey sandwich for lunch. Why bother, he thought. It's not worth the effort.

"1958," the flight attendant said. "I've got a 1958 penny. Who can beat that?"

Just then, the man remembered something. He leaned over to the little girl.

"Do you want to win a prize?" he asked, reaching for the wallet in his back pocket.

She nodded yes.

Ripping open the Velcro seal, he stuck two fingers into the little mesh pocket that held his SCUBA diving card and an Indian head penny he had found years before in the jar of pennies that collected three and four at a time every day when he came home from work. Handing the penny to the little girl, he said, "You reach up and push that button and give this to the flight attendant. No one's going to beat this."

When he saw she couldn't reach the button, he reached up and pushed it for her.

A second attendant appeared from the back of the plane, took the penny from the girl's fingers, looked at her, then shook his head.

"1901," he called out.

The contest was over.

The first attendant clomped down the aisle with a black plastic trash bag bunched in either hand. "You get your choice of one bag or a free cocktail," he called out while the winner was still hidden behind the seats in front of her.

"Nah, you don't get no cocktail," he said when he saw her smile filled with teeth that was still too big for her 9-year-old mouth.

"Which bag do you want?"

"That one," she said, pointing to the bag in his left hand.

"You won ... a month's supply of peanuts," he said, lifting up a clear plastic bag filled with foil-wrapped packets of airline peanuts and placing it in the girl's eager hands.

"I'm going to eat these all in about one day," she said to the man with the penny.

From a point somewhere above his belly button yet lower than his chest, the man felt a tiny surge of pressure that turned into a rush of warmth and spread throughout his body. His nose tingled, eyes watered and a little smile turned up the corners of his mouth.

"I think it'll take you a little longer than that," he said. "Maybe a week."

"Yeah, maybe a week," she said. "I'll have some when I get home from school, and some when I'm watching TV."

They were friends.

He asked her where she was going, and she told him she was going to see the dolphins at SeaWorld. She said she liked roller coasters, and he told her he was afraid of them. She said her mom had cooked chicken and cornbread and broccoli for dinner. He told her he hadn't eaten yet.

When the plane started its descent, she took an almost finished package of Lifesavers from her pocket, peeled back the crumpled waxed paper, and popped one in her mouth.

"You want one," she asked. "It keeps your ears from getting clogged up."

"You must be an experienced flyer," he said, taking a yellow one from the roll. "You know all the tricks."

"Yeah, this isn't the first time I've been on an airplane. But the last time was a long time ago. I was only seven then."

They sat side-by-side sucking on their Lifesavers and looking out the window. He pointed out the coastline and the mountains and a baseball stadium filled with fans. She liked the twinkling lights, and when the plane circled to land became confused about which vast dark area was the ocean and which was the mountains.

As the plane touched down and pulled into the gate, she gathered up her shopping bag and peanuts.

"Bye," she said, and disappeared down the aisle with a flight attendant.