Bethanne grasped the drink that sat in front of her. It felt like they had gone over a speed bump too fast, but—she glanced around the airplane—that couldn’t be. She surveyed her fellow passengers and the flight attendants for a cue to panic. Seeing everyone calm, she decided to let it pass.
“Quite a bump,” she said to her seatmate, a round man with a glistening brow whom she had only heard say the words, “bourbon” and “rocks.”
He glanced at her but said nothing. His plastic cup sat empty on his tray, the melting ice tinged a tawny colour. His earbuds were firmly implanted and the small, seat-back television flickered a steady series of images.
The next bump came with a loud pop and a whoob-whoob-whir that momentarily drowned out all other cabin noise. The lights flickered. The plane lurched to one side, then corrected its course. A baby started crying. As the wailing grew, a murmur of annoyance crept through the passengers.
Bethanne lifted her cup from the tray table and brought it quickly to her lips to drink it down to a reasonable level, that being one that wouldn’t spill. At seven dollars a high ball, she couldn’t warrant a wasted drop. She returned the cup to the tray and counted herself lucky that she wasn’t seated near the crying baby.
The ice made a muted clack as the plane wobbled again. While she was sucking rum and coke off her fingers, Bethanne noted a stewardess sporting a nametag that read “Genie” bustle past, heading toward the cockpit.
“Don’t worry,” the man beside her grumbled. Without taking his eyes from the tiny television screen, he said, “The odds of dying in a plane crash are astronomically low.”
In the next moments, Bethanne would realize she had never been so lucky.
“Ladies and gentlemen, this is the captain.”
Captain Bob, Bethanne thought. He had introduced himself earlier, had spoken with authority, and seemed to know what he was doing. He’ll tell us everything is okay.
“It seems like we’ve experienced a slight mechanical failure,” Captain Bob’s continued through a crackle of static. “We apologize for the inconvenience but we will be making a priority landing at Schiphol. Until we touch down, please remain in your seats with your seatbelts fastened. Thank you and enjoy the rest of your flight.”
Captain Bob was glad that his mind hadn’t sabotaged him. Sometimes it had a way of confusing the words he thought with those he said. Once he called an airplane an Oreoplane because he was thinking of cookies while talking about flying. Then there was the time he told his wife…his ex-wife, “The waitress had nice, big tits,” when he meant he had left a nice big tip. So this time, he was happy his thoughts didn’t override the end his announcement. “Thank you and enjoy the rest of our plummet.”
Surely, I can’t be the only one who gets words and thoughts mixed up, Captain Bob speculated and glanced at his copilot, Jeff… he looked good, rested and tanned. His skin looked healthy. Nice shiny coif, sparkling alert eyes.
Captain Bob wished he’d slept better the night before because he would have been more inclined to deal with this. Instead, he had stayed up late watching that movie about the small town girl going to New York, not really fitting in, falling in love but being shunned for her unsophisticated, small town ways. Even so, as Captain Bob scanned the instruments showing engines three and four had failed, he was glad he’d stayed up. He would have hated being in the cockpit of a failing airplane not knowing if the plucky country girl and handsome city man got together. In the end they did and Captain Bob had shed a tear. It was late at night, he was jet-lagged and alone in a hotel room in a strange city, and his mind wandered to his ex-wife on the other side of the world. He missed her and had fallen asleep hugging his pillow.
“Schiphol’s ready for us,” Copilot Jeff said. “We’ll start our descent and be safely on the ground in half an hour.”
Copilot Jeff’s confidence annoyed Captain Bob.
Cocky bastard, Captain Bob thought. Yes, technically they could fly to their destination on the remaining engines… technically, he and his wife were only separated. But, Captain Bob sighed, the divorce papers were imminent and the other two engines could fail and then we’d be screwed.
“Jeff,” Captain Bob said, “like life, this could all go wrong and you could wake up in the darkest part of the night, hugging a pillow wet with tears, while some romantic comedy plays muted on the television, forgetting where you are, forgetting your wife left you, and having to relearn you’re all alone. Imagine, suffering that, night after night. It does stuff to a man. All we can do is the best we can and hope it all turns out.” Captain Bob inhaled deeply. “Okay?”
Copilot Jeff was confused. He didn’t know this stuff yet. He was too young, still thought everything always worked out. But as the airplane suffered another shuddering seizure, as the control panel flashed and a klaxons agonized in his headset, he realized that sometimes things went really wrong.
“See?” Captain Bob said. “It just took a few seconds. Now we’re screwed.” His hands were aflurry, flipping switches and poking buttons. “That world…the one we were in a few seconds ago, before all our engines failed, that world’s gone. Now, through no fault of our own, we’re in this one.”
Copilot Jeff had always loved flying with Captain Bob, even after the man had separated with his wife and became a little more cantankerous. In fact, it was that bluntness he liked. There was no grey area. If Captain Bob was pissed off, you knew it. No guessing. If Captain Bob praised you, it was genuine. Wrap that in a distinguished, slim and handsome fifty-something frame with sharp features and a strong chin that was perpetually covered in a steely stubble and Copilot Jeff had a viable option for his first ever man-crush. All this being known to Copilot Jeff, the fact that Captain Bob had said they were screwed meant it was truly so.
There was a bang on the cockpit door and Genie’s voice came through their headsets. “Lemme in,” it sparked above the sound of the warning systems.
Copilot Jeff released the door and Genie stumbled in, grabbing the doorframe for a moment to brace herself against the turbulence.
“Turn off the overhead address please, Captain. The passengers can hear every word,” Genie said, slammed the door and turned to survey the cabin.
“Now,” she called up the rows of shuddering and shaking passengers, “who needs a drink?” Several hands shot up and Genie stumbled up the aisle handing out miniature bottles of liquor.
She paused at seat C32 and pointed at the illuminated ‘No Smoking’ sign above the man’s head. “Excuse me, Sir. Could you please extinguish your cigarette? Smoking is prohibited on this flight.”
With no precedent for protocols in such a situation, Paul had assumed it would be okay to smoke. Seemingly, he assumed incorrectly. Paul was embarrassed because he prided himself on being a courteous smoker. He realized it was considered a noxious habit by most and usually made efforts to isolate himself when he partook. Given the circumstances though, he figured there would be little harm in lighting up.
Paul nodded at Genie and surveyed his seat for a place to extinguish the cigarette. He looked back at Genie apologetically and said, “There’s no ashtray.”
“Here, give it to me.” Genie reached to pinch the cigarette from Paul’s hand.
It was then the plane bucked. The cabin frame groaned and buckled. A roar of air passed through the length of the compartment. Paul blinked. Genie was gone. She became a blur, sucked sideways in a ricocheting trajectory down the aisle before being flung out the breached door at the rear of the plane.
Paul was left holding the cigarette between his thumb and forefinger. He squinted in the rush of air, blinked again, and brought the filter to his lips. He reckoned that his smoking was hardly as annoying as the baby wailing, clutched by a woman in the seat behind his. He shot her an annoyed glance over the headrest.
Helen bounced baby Martin in her lap, clutching him firmly to her bosom in an attempt to hush the child. She didn’t miss Paul’s quick glare and blushed in response. Her infant, of the three in the cabin, was the only one misbehaving. Now, thankfully, the noise from the constant jet of air buffeting through the cabin muted the full fury of baby Martin’s howling. He was teething; he hadn’t slept well the night before so he was even fussier today than normal. That, on top of the disruptions caused by the failing aircraft, made calming him an impossible task.
“Sometimes, it helps feeding them.” The old lady, a woman with three children and five grandchildren of her own, leaned over and shouted near her ear. They had chatted, as the plane was taking off, about how the pressure change was hard for babies to deal with. Now, Helen realized she didn’t even know the old lady’s name.
Helen nodded and smiled at her but made no attempt to follow her advice. What did it really matter, she thought. Either they would survive the next few minutes or not, and baby Martin’s current state of discomfort was wholly irrelevant in that light. As soon as the thought crossed her mind, however, she wondered if that made her a bad mother.
Two seats up the aisle, an overhead compartment popped open. A carry-on suitcase fell with some gravity onto the lap of the man below. He squealed. The suitcase opened, its contents swirling like a startled flock throughout the cabin.
I bet that hurt, Helen thought. With an eye on the suitcase’s contents whizzing by and an ear to Baby Martin’s screaming, Helen thought, all I have to do is let go. Then she clutched Baby Martin tighter to her chest.
The old lady gave Helen’s knee a squeeze and smiled, as if she knew what Helen was thinking. “Don’t worry,” she shouted over the din. “I’ve been around long enough to know that we can only do what we can. The rest is left up to life.” Her grip tightened on Helen’s knee as the bucking and vibrating intensified.
What an exciting time, the old lady thought, to share this end with all of these people. She glanced out the window. The ocean was close, or at least it seemed that way. Judging the distance was hard though; the grey expanse of water was so massive that it dwarfed everything else. Her mind struggled to visualize a vertical distance of a few thousand feet, let alone the tens of thousands of feet from which they had started, but it was conceptually impossible so she gave up.
Three years ago, she had watched her husband be consumed by dementia and had witnessed what an undignified thing death could be. Forgetting everything, having your memories, your life, your very being taken from you slowly, day after day. If we don’t make it through this, she thought, what an exhilarating way to go. Her heart thrummed and she felt more alive than she had in years. Another blur, another body being swept past the rows of seats, distracted her from her ruminations.
Walt was more than surprised to be swept off his feet and carried down the aisle to the back of the plane when he stepped out of the WC. Of course, he had heard the noise through the thin door. He had endured the challenges of his enflamed prostate, passing a kidney stone, and urinating as the plane plummeted from its cruising altitude. Regardless, he had succeeded in the Herculean tasks of evacuating his bladder and washing up afterward.
What he was unprepared for was the chaos. He had time to register a flash of a shocked, wrinkled face before being ejected into a world of noise and wind and wide-open sky. From his vantage, the cabin door receded, and then the tail of the plane grew smaller as it sped on without him. Walt got a view of just how troubled the aircraft was. All four engines trailed plumes of smoke and there was a horrible kink in the once smooth lines of the fuselage.
Now that’s something you don’t see everyday, Walt thought to himself as he pinwheeled in a free fall, arms and legs splayed out as if he were a skydiver. Walt watched the plane grow smaller and then disappear when it barged a frothy hole into the steely grey water.
His mind wandered back to when he was preparing for this business trip. He had ordered a taxi pick-up before he went to bed and had woken up before sunrise. While his wife dozed, he tiptoed around their ensuite, washing up and brushing his teeth. He kissed her on the forehead and she had mumbled, “Have a good trip.”
Just before Walt hit the water with enough force that it may as well have been concrete, he remembered how that kiss had felt on his lips. It was preferable to thinking that his last human contact was a rough frisk from a burly security guard at the airport.
Bradley Somer holds degrees in Archaeology and Anthropology, where his studies focused on paleoenvironments and human prehistory in North America. His newest novel, Extinction, is now available in the Commonwealth (Harper Voyager UK) and will be released in North America in November 2022 (Blackstone Publishing). He is the author of two previous novels, Imperfections (Nightwood Editions, 2012) and Fishbowl (St. Martin’s Press, 2015), and has also written over thirty works of short fiction, which have appeared in literary journals, reviews, and anthologies over the past twenty years. Bradley lives with his husband at the foot of the Rocky Mountains. Between sitting for hours reading and chronic bouts of writing, he enjoys snowshoeing and hiking the outdoors.