Derrick chews his last honey-glazed airplane peanut and gazes greedily at the unopened cellophane packet on the tray of the girl seated next to him. Then the pilot’s voice over the intercom intrudes. We have some turbulence in the air up ahead. Everyone needs to fasten seat belts and keep them fastened. Attendants, please prepare the cabin.
But this isn’t the same adult-in-charge voice that so calmly and smoothly initiated the flight, the Morgan Freeman-sounding voice that earlier described destinations, distances, elevations, and flight times. No, this is the voice of a man who’s seen a ghost and is trying not to talk too fast. Flight attendants scurry down the aisle with black plastic bags. They seize unfinished drinks, command trays be lifted and locked. Seat belts click like swords clashing. Derrick’s peripheral vision puckers, draws close to his body, a protective poncho. He fumbles with his seat belt, worries it won’t work, but it does. He pulls it a notch tighter across his lap.
Now that he’s secure, Derrick dials his vigilance back and surveys other passengers for clues about how worried he should be. No one’s smiling, but no one’s hyperventilating either. It’s just turbulence, right? A large man with thick black hair, greased back, and aftershave strong enough to smell across the aisle has his seat reclined with his eyes closed, as if settling in for a nap. Derrick surreptitiously glances at the lady with streaks of gray in her hair sitting to his left. She’s determinedly reading one of the seat pocket airline magazines. The girl to his right, whose peanuts he’d coveted, looks out the window. Derrick senses she’s thinking not about turbulence in the air, but someone waiting for her on the ground.
The hiss of the intercom interrupts Derrick’s speculations. We’re running into a thunderstorm we’ll have to fly through. Everyone remain seated with seat belts fastened. The announcement makes Derrick uneasy. A little rough air isn’t unusual, but Derrick thought pilots flew around thunderstorms. As the plane descends, rain splatters the windows of the plane. The storm must be near the Atlanta airport. The storm must be unavoidable.
Derrick feels his body lift toward the ceiling as the plane suddenly drops and a few people shriek. The plane steadies, but the wings tip down to the left and then to the right. The big guy with greased-back hair across the aisle sits straight up. The woman to his left who’d been trying to read stuffs her magazine into the pocket on back of the seat in front of her. She grabs the armrests, readying for the next surprise. Like Derrick, she’s flying alone with no trusted hand to hold or to hold hers.
The girl to Derrick’s right has her phone out. He’s impressed she’s cool enough to surf the Internet during this kind of turbulence until he realizes she’s texting. Should Derrick text Sophie? Why? The pilot hasn’t said the storm will delay arrival. What would Derrick say? OMG thunderstorm. B glad when we land. Nonetheless, Derrick digs in his pants pocket for his phone.
Flash, and Boom! so loud it hurts his ears. Several people scream. Derrick is holding his breath. The plane continues to fly and Derrick exhales. Someone says we were struck by lightning. The storm pounds against the windows, pings that sound like hail, and the plane tips side to side. Should Derrick call someone? He taps Sophie’s number in his phone and listens to it ring someplace safe on the ground. Hi. This is Sophie. Leave a message and I’ll call you back.
Flash and Boom! Derrick drops the phone. His ears are ringing. The plane is level but dropping like a wounded bird. A flight attendant comes down the aisle, holding onto seat backs for balance, and stops at Derrick’s row. She looks out Derrick’s window. He looks, too. The outermost engine on the wing is smoking. Engine noise suddenly accelerates and the plane no longer feels like it’s falling. The intercom comes on, but it must be inadvertent – the pilot is talking to somebody else. Derrick can’t make out what’s being said. Then Derrick hears the breath of the pilot in the microphone.
We took a couple of lightning hits. It’s unusual, but it happens. One of the engines isn’t functioning but we have plenty of power with the other three. We’re checking systems. Hopefully, we’ve gone through the worst of it. We’ll try to land in Atlanta rather divert. Please keep your seat belts fastened.
Derrick parses the pilot’s message. Try to land in Atlanta. Does the word try mean if they can’t land in Atlanta they’ll land somewhere else? Or does it mean they will try to land but might crash? Derrick doesn’t have a Last Will and Testament. Where is his phone? He runs his hands over his lap, feels behind and under his bottom, leans forward to look at the floor as he explores with his foot. The plane suddenly drops again and he grabs the back of the seat in front of him for stability.
The lady to his left has closed her eyes. She’s praying. The girl beside him is hunched over, curling herself closer to the seat as if to make herself a smaller target. The frame of the plane shudders and the engines whine. Derrick notices the rain is slackening, but the body of the plane continues to bounce on pockets of air and not-air. Through the gray of the rain and clouds Derrick sees land. He doesn’t know whether that’s good or bad.
He remembers his phone and mourns losing it. If he’s facing possible death, a phone is what he needs most. To call Sophie. To call his attorney and dictate a will. To call his parents and apologize for being an ungrateful child. To call God, if God has 911. Derrick smells ammonia, sees the wet spot in the lap of the lady to his left. He puts his hand on hers. She lets go of the armrest, intertwines her fingers with his. Whatever happens, at least Derrick is helping someone.
He looks out the window again. The ground is closer. Derrick hears thunder and sees lightning strike intermittently across the horizon like Christmas lights blinking. At a distance, it’s beautiful. Derrick feels the plane sink and hears the wheels come down. He’s always a little anxious during landings, always tries to anticipate touch-down as if he’s in a swimming pool reaching for the bottom with his toes. But this landing is different. This storm is an angry Zeus that could grab the plane and dash it to the ground if it wants.
The plane drops into the misty grayness carpeting the ground in Atlanta. The edge of the runway appears outside the window. The wings of the plane tip up and down like a tightrope walker seeking balance. Derrick holds his breath. The back wheel on the left hits first, then the right wheel drops like a barbell on the gym floor. The nose stays in the air, as if the plane is doing an involuntary wheelie, then slams to the tarmac. The plane rolls like a runaway stagecoach that’s going to crash into the terminal. Derrick imagines the plane compacted like a junked car, passengers mangled and mashed. The pilot reverses the engine thrust and immediately the plane slows. The landscape no longer races past Derrick’s window. He releases his breath.
The intercom switches on. Derrick pays no attention to the words, only to the sound of relief in the pilot’s voice. Everyone is unclicking seat belts and gathering themselves to deplane this doomed bird.
“Did somebody lose a phone?”
A young guy with dyed purple hair in the seat in front of Derrick holds Derrick’s phone in the air. Derrick claims it. He and the purple-hair guy look into each other’s eyes and affirm a world where humans look out for each other.
Instead of disembarking through a jetway bridge directly into the terminal, the passengers descend a set of stairs that have been rolled onto the runway. As they cross around the plane Derrick stops to look at the plane. He sees a black mark on the fuselage and another on the disabled engine. He reconstructs where he sat on the plane in relation to those two marks, mentally measures in feet how near he was to the lightning strikes. I almost died. Instinctively, and in less than a split second, he pushes that thought away, beyond striking distance.
Derrick follows other passengers up a narrow stairwell into the terminal proper, floating like a kite after the string is cut, belonging to nobody. He has a three-hour layover to kill before his next flight, but what he really, really needs right now is a place to sit quietly.
The departure lounge beside gate B36 is mostly empty. Derrick claims a seat, tries to relax, but can’t. Though he’s alone, he feels intruded upon. He wants something to distract his mind. He picks up a newspaper laying in the chair next to him and stares at headlines about rumors of war, gain and loss in the stock market, politicians lying, amusements that aren’t amusing. It gives him a headache. He scans the shops in the terminal corridor for a restaurant or bar. The plane’s on the ground but Derrick’s not. Derrick needs a drink.
The woman behind the bar looks to be in her 40s. Hefty poundage pillows her belly and hips. She wears the makeup of customer service but it doesn’t conceal her wariness, as if the world is a dog that might bite.
“What can I get you honey?”
Derrick wonders if she calls everyone honey or if he looks like someone who needs to be called honey. He notices her name tag. Mary.
“I’ll have a Bloody Mary.”
Mary rotates her girth and waddles away to prepare Derrick’s order. He follows her movements for a few feet and then the effort seems too much. But staring at unfocused space makes him anxious. He needs to fill that space with something. Fortunately, Mary quickly returns with his Bloody Mary and a napkin to put it on. She sets a bowl of mixed nuts in front of him.
The first sip hits his nervous system and numbs it. He thinks I’m in shock. But his sense perceptions remain heightened, as if ozone is in the air around him. He takes another sip. By the time Derrick’s glass is empty, he almost feels normal. He orders another. When Mary brings it, he tells her about the flight, recounts the story skillfully and finds that doing so gives him control over the event. When Mary acts impressed, Derrick glows inwardly, like when the guy with purple hair gave him his phone. Mary tells Derrick about a flight her sister was on that turned around halfway because they thought there was a terrorist on board. “Wow!” Derrick says, giving quid pro quo. He picks up a handful of nuts from the bowl. He’s finally touched down, he’s back in his old life.
Mary brings the bill. Derrick leaves cash to cover what’s due plus a twenty percent tip, maybe more – it’s too hard to do the math. He rises from his seat, steadies himself, and joins the flotsam floating through the airport from departure gate to departure gate. His mind once again fastens on the particulars of daily living that leave no room for death to get a foothold. Everything is okay.
Mike Wilson’s work has appeared in magazines including Fiction Southeast, The Saturday Evening Post, Deep South Magazine, and Anthology of Appalachian Writers Vol. X. He’s author of Arranging Deck Chairs on the Titanic (Rabbit House Press, 2020) and resides in Central Kentucky.
© 2021, Mike Wilson