Flight Through the Storm
by Eric Dawson
Click here to listen to this story on the Kaidankai podcast.
You’ve got the guy in the seat to the right, flick-licking Pringles from his palm with his ugly red tuber of a tongue. Then there’s the college girl to his left and across the aisle—furiously flicking through photos on her phone like the world’s about to end, but who then pulls her white hood over her head and falls right to sleep.
In front of her, still across the aisle, is perhaps the oldest person John has ever seen, desiccated and shriveled with a frazzle of white hair and blotches of pinkish scalp showing through. Her hands are sucked down to the very bone, with black veins worming just under the surface of the skin.
“She might die on this flight,” John thinks. And that reminds him that he is going to die one day, too. Would it even matter if the plane went down? Would it matter if his life were snuffed out—whether in a panic of seatbelt buckles and decompressed mayhem or at home in bed, of old age?
A passenger from an earlier flight had left a People magazine in the seatback in front of him. The top half of Ryan Gosling’s face peeks over the pocket, eyes twinkling, as if letting John in on their own little secret.
And then a muffled thump.
Something is happening in the back of the plane; John hears a noise, a clatter, followed by a scuffle of movement.
He cranes his head to see, as do a few others, but a flight attendant is blocking the way. He rises, squeezing himself out of the seatbelt, twisting to look around the people in the aisle. The passengers standing are trying to grapple with something. Maybe someone collapsed from a seizure.
John glances at the old woman, who only stares straight ahead, passively.
And the college girl: still asleep. And Pringles guy, now onto other adventures with a jumbo-sized bag of Skittles.
Does anyone care?
“Sit down, sir. Please.” It’s the flight attendant, a stocky redheaded woman who looks like she could handle herself in a Wisconsin barroom brawl, but whose voice now sounds panicked. And then John realizes what she’s dealing with: a bearded man with a shaved head, white T-shirt and blue-green tattoos running along both arms.
Pringles man looks back, chomping slowly like a cow chewing its cud. College girl stirs in her sleep. And the old woman? Not only is she not staring ahead passively any more, but she is doubled over now, as if gasping for air. Had she seen the scuffle? Is the stress sending her into cardiac arrest?
“No one treads on me.” The bearded man steps back from the flight attendant and a man in a business suit who’d been watching observantly, as if ready to step in and help. Bearded man spins around and clocks business suit in the face, who falls backwards. In another sudden movement, and using the seats for leverage, he kicks the flight attendant in the stomach. She gasps for air, falls onto the floor with a thud and a whimper.
College girl, awake and bleary-eyed now, flips her hoodie back to see what the commotion is about, unhooking earbuds as she does.
Pringles man drops the jumbo bag of Skittles onto the floor, which now dart every which way like frantic tadpoles.
But the old woman? She has collapsed forward, and seems not to be moving. Her face lies smushed against the tray table, plastic cup of apple juice on its side with juice cascading over the tray.
John unbuckles his seatbelt. He doesn’t know what he will do, or why he is even getting up, but thought blurs into motion. The bearded man, seven rows back, now waves something in the air. Shit, John thinks: a gun. No, no. Not that.
Before another word, before whatever white-supremacist rant the man has planned, the gun goes off. Someone shrieks and everyone looks back. The man with the gun stands there, jaws set in a seething grimace. John sees the hole in the plane’s window. It is small, and it whistles like a tea kettle, but nothing else happens. The window didn’t blow out. The side of the plane didn’t come tearing off. They’re safe. For now.
“Enough!” John yells. “This woman’s hurt.”
He doesn’t know why he said it, but he did. Maybe this would be a distraction, a way to divert the situation, and perhaps the bearded man will calm down if he understands he has just moved past mere words. The gunman, facing towards the front of the plane, stares at John and breathes hard, and just as John is wondering what to do, thoughts in a helter-skelter panic, he sees another, shorter man, rising behind the one with the beard. Would he tackle him, risk his life to save the plane? John takes a step forward, hoping this will keep the attacker’s eyes on him.
But this is not what happens at all. The new figure, with a buzz cut and a confederate flag tattoo on the back of his neck, claps the bearded man on the shoulder, nods with stupid and conspiratorial glee, then turns to face the back of the plane.
The two are working together.
“You say something?” the man with the beard asks in a low voice. He has calmed his breathing now, and he seems to be channeling whatever movie bad guys he’s seen.
College girl looks to John.
When confronted with life, glaringly and profusely in front of him, he wants it, no matter how ugly and bad. He’d been on his way to New York to take care of his father’s house a few weeks after the funeral, and he’s tired; he doesn’t have time for this.
But then again, does anyone have time for a life to end?
Before, the thought of death had been a distant idea, a tar-tingled gulp of fear; now, however, it is a fact, not much different from the Skittles rolling across the floor, the apple juice soaking into the plane’s carpet, or the college girl’s white earbuds. All facts. All pieces of reality. As is this moment. As is his heart-pumping life, standing before a stranger with a beard who holds a plastic, 3D-printed gun, aimed right at John’s chest.
“This woman,” John says. “She’s hurt. Just let me see and then you can tell us what you want.”
The man doesn’t say anything, so John slides across the aisle, places his index and middle fingers on the jugular. He feels for a few seconds, moves his hand: nothing. No pulse. He doesn’t say that he doesn’t know much about medicine beyond what he’d learned from a few first aid classes, but he knows enough to know a pulse. Even still, he keeps his face stern. If people think him an expert, that might buy them all some time.
The old woman’s skin has already grown cold; it feels like parchment paper that has been left in the fridge.
“I think she’s dead,” John pronounces.
College girl gasps.
The gunman falters for a half second, but then, as if realizing everyone’s watching and he’s the one putting on the show, resumes his former commando stance.
To his left, a muscly kid in a CSU T-shirt catches John’s eye and starts to rise, ever so slowly. Oh shit, John thinks: another one? But then, before anyone even understands what’s happening, the kid throws himself at the bearded gunman, grips the gun in his hand. The two struggle, arms interlaced, and John moves forward, wondering how to help, realizing he should but not sure how. The gun flails right and left as the two fight.
Then the friend with the confederate flag whips around and pounds CSU in the head, and the bearded one pulls back, aims, and shoots the boy in the gut. The kid groans, rolls over, florets of blood sprouting around the letters on his shirt.
“Tommy, I had him,” confederate flag says. “Save the bullets for later.”
“Fuck you, Ed,” the bearded one says. “You’re supposed to watch my back. The bullet was so no one else tries nothing stupid.”
John thinks about trying something stupid, but he also knows he’s no hero; he has known this his whole life.
College girl starts to cry, softly and to herself. She thinks of her mother, back in Denver, and her whole family. She wonders if this is how her life will end, wonders if this is what it has all been leading up to: a single moment that means nothing. But then she senses something move in her periphery, and she looks to the old woman. Did the old woman shift? Did steam rise from her slumped-over form? Strange, she thinks.
“Tommy and Ed,” John says, fearful about using their names, but knowing it’ll get their attention. “My name’s John Ramirez, and I’m not going to do anything crazy. I just want to keep things calm. Is that okay?”
“Shit right you’re not gonna do anything crazy,” Ed, the one with the confederate tattoo says, smiling a smile tinged with acrid yellow. He smells like nicotine and despair.
A moment is all we ever have, John thinks, like this moment. He feels a trembling deep inside him, senses the terrible fragility of this snippet of time, 32,000 feet in the air, as he and a group of scared strangers wait for what’s next.
The man with the Skittles bag, T-shirt stretched tight over his belly, has peed his pants. A mother a few rows up clutches her daughter, eyes red from crying. The college girl studies it all not with fear but with sadness, and she, like everyone else, sits there, poised as in a tableau. John has no idea what to do. Is there anything he could say that would change things? He senses desperation in these two men, their eyes empty of imagination or empathy. Eyes that convey only tangled knots of confusion and need.
The boy with the CSU shirt lies on the floor, now soaked in blood; the flight attendant is conscious, but barely moving; and the businessman who’d been hit is now sitting up, holding his bloody nose and watching. Not even consciously, not even religiously, John sends up a wordless prayer, a desperate hope that someone will hear. And someone does. But not God. Not exactly.
My name is Ethel. I’m neither here nor there, though I’m not sure where I am.
My name is Ethel. I believe that’s who I am. Or who I was.
I’m from Heathsville, Virginia, a place of cornfields and smudged baseball caps, oyster shucking down by the Rappahannock River and neighbors singing at Coan Baptist Church. These images come to me all at once: a life. My life.
My name is Ethel, though I’m not sure what that name means any more.
It’s an empty name, a word. A leaf fallen from a tree after a storm.
I’m in this dark place that’s neither here nor there, unfamiliar and intimate all at once.
I’m 89. Or was. What’s a number, anyway? What’s an age? I’m dead now.
“Dead.” I say the name and let it roll around the cave of my mouth, feel it, almost laugh. It’s a funny word, a little bud of a word, harmless and comical. Everything seems so far away.
I’m dead. I think I understand this, but I don’t feel like I thought I’d feel; I’m a leaf fallen from a tree after a storm.
“Everyone, remain calm. This is your captain speaking. Please remain calm. We’ve been informed of the situation. We can land soon. We ask that no one do anything drastic. We can land in Dayton. They’re waiting for us. No one needs to get hurt. Please. There are people on the ground willing to negotiate.”
“Fuck that,” the one named Tommy, the bearded one, shouts. “We’re past talking.” His eyes are spidered with red capillaries, ruby-red suns setting behind a tangled mass of branches. He’s desperate, John understands, and empty. The man believes he needs this senseless act of violence to feel like he’s alive. John senses this in the man, knows there’s nothing any of them can do. He’d been ready to ask what they wanted, but now it seems pointless. He knows what they want: the same thing any such men want: to fill the emptiness with more emptiness.
John sees the college girl, the boy on the floor, the hurt flight attendant, and something in him starts to shift. Taking a step forward, he stares down the man with the gun.
My name’s Ethel, but that’s a name my parents gave me. Their names are Ione and Campbell. Isn’t that funny? A name is a name is a name.
As a little girl, I used to repeat my name until it lost all meaning, and that’s what this feels like now.
I’m neither here nor there: an intimate blackness lingers at the corners of my existence, and I know I won’t be in this no-place for long. I’m here in this darkness, but the sights, sounds, and smells, return to me, like a life in bloom. Or an exhalation.
I see the varnished wood of my rocking chair on the shadowed porch.
My grandson, Johnny, on my lap, drinking a glass of chocolate milk, which he dribbles onto his overalls.
Crows cawing in the cornfield.
My wedding day, and the thrill and fear of the future, hands clutching lace of the dress.
Buckets of fried chicken on our green tablecloth.
My husband’s hand with its leathery creases, the restrained warmth.
And now I see him: my husband, dead these many years, but so close. Is that his smell? Old Spice and corn husks and flannel shirts with just a hint of mothballs.
Everyone I’ve ever known. I sense them, smell them, in that place on the distant horizon.
I wasn’t perfect, but who is?
“Just let us land,” John tells the man. He feels himself stepping out of his body, looking at himself from outside himself, but as he’s saying the words, he knows the man’s not going to listen.
“We’re not landing,” the man named Tommy says. “The world will remember this day.”
John now feels it in him, a seething hatred for these men, for all little men who need to prove their mettle through spittle-filled rage and violence. Men who think they’re men but aren’t.
John clenches his fist, but Tommy notices the subtle movement, cracks him in the face with the back of the gun. He falls.
“No stupid shit,” Tommy says, baring his teeth, looking around the plane as he does.
John lies on the floor, near the old woman’s hand. He feels something sticky and wet under him. Is it the apple juice—or blood? His left cheek throbs, but he remains where he has fallen.
“The world will remember us,” Eddie yells, jugular bursting in his neck. “The war begins today.”
John stands slowly, wipes the blood from his cheek. “So you can make a world where assholes win?”
Ed and Tommy look surprised, but hold their stance. John has never felt this way before. He’s in a moment, experiencing an eternity, and it could all end now, but can there be an end to a moment when each instant is eternal? He steps closer, only two feet from Tommy.
“Shoot me, you prick. Show us all what a brave man you are.”
“Fine,” Tommy says, and he jams the gun into John’s chest, squeezes the trigger.
My name is Ethel.
I am a leaf fallen from a tree after a storm.
There is a merry-go-round swirl of colors and memories around me, but now I feel something else. I’m drawn towards the light on the distant horizon, like a sunrise in the Appalachian Mountains, a slender white line just before dawn breaks, but I feel something else. I hear something else. What is it?
My name is Ethel. I’m 89. Or was.
I died on United Flight 117, headed to New York to see my sister, who’s sick in the hospital. They said I shouldn’t go, but I said I must.
I remember the men screaming, saw the twisted man with the gun, and something in me finally gave out. Our world is broken, and something in those men is broken, too, but the anger and fear rose up in me and allowed me a gentle collapse. Like a flower drooping at nightfall.
Then I saw the apple juice on the floor.
And that poor man’s spilled candies.
And the feeling of a warm hand on my neck.
These things return to me in a continual movie-reeling present, and I see the other memories there, too. The things unfinished and unsaid.
I’m not a bad person, would never want to hurt anyone, but now I see all those unfinished moments laid out before me now, like a corpse’s organs on an autopsy table.
I didn’t do bad things, but did I do anything to stop the bad things I saw? When my husband told racist jokes, I sat in stoic silence, and sometimes even forced a smile. When Greta Stallworth calmly explained how all Jews, Muslims, and Catholics were going to Hell, with a hint of glee on her face, I didn’t question her for a second. The small cruelties I witnessed over almost nine decades add up, like small cuts that can bleed a person out. But what did I do? Not much, I’m afraid—and I can see my life now for what it was: a life not of bad, but not of good, either.
All the unfinished moments lie before me, and I remember them and feel them calling me back, offering me this chance to finish them, to finish this life I hadn’t quite completed.
But then again: is a life ever complete?
This world is an urn cracked through and through, but I see this one crack, and I want to try to fix it. Death is giving me this chance.
Everything slows. The firing pin explodes into a condensed fireball of lightning, and the gun, still jammed into John’s chest, shudders. John feels this crushing rush, and he senses the vibrations of the bullet rocketing through the barrel, can sense its force heading towards his heart that beats fragile and red. He hears the miniscule vibrations of the bullet, and he sees the faces of the passengers, frozen in time—the Pringles man, the college girl, the boy with the CSU shirt, the businessman—and he feels a sudden upsurging of warmth towards them, an understanding of who they are, that they want the same things he does: an escape from the emptiness.
Even the face of the man with the gun pointed at his chest doesn’t seem worthy of hate any longer. Nor the one named Ed. They just deserve sadness. Because they’re empty puppets. Leaves fallen after a storm.
Under the vibrations of the plane’s engines, the vibrations of the bullet throttling at a rate of 1,700 miles per hour towards his still beating heart, the vibrations of the crying and the fear, John feels something else: another vibration.
My name is Ethel.
I am no longer a leaf fallen after a storm.
I am the storm.
Just before the bullet can touch him, the world stops completely.
No one remembers what happens after, but memory doesn’t matter. What matters is that she is there now, an angel of darkness rising from the quiescent form of an old dead lady on a plane, slumped over seat B32. And this swirling form of shadow shudders the entire carapace of the plane, encompasses the bodies of the two men, and suddenly they, too, see their lives in front of them, in an unfurling all-at-onceness, terrible and bleak.
And so this dark angel envelopes them, implodes lungs and bones, cartilage and capillaries, gun and bullet, but there is no blood, no pain: there is only existence blurring to nonexistence, a whiff of two lives now blotted out, an iron bell’s last toll on a winter’s morning.
John slumps down onto the armrest of the seat, not sure how he’s alive, or what happened. Flickers of darkness move around the plane’s interior, like raven’s feathers, and the sound of a barely heard scream, an echo in a distant valley, disappears into the vibrations of the universe around them. He sees the other passengers as for the first time, eyes still vibrant with fear.
“What was that?” A voice from the back of the plane asks, delicate and afraid. “What just happened?” The boy with the CSU sweatshirt moans, and the college girl rises from her seat, kneels at his side, places hand on his shoulder, whispers that everything will be okay.
John starts to open his mouth to say something, but he can find no words.
My name was once Ethel, but I can barely remember anything about that life any longer.
I am a leaf fallen from a tree. Or the hushed quiet after a storm.
Eric Dawson lives in Denver, CO, and when he’s not wandering in the wilderness, he likes to read all things speculative. He has attended writing workshops at Aspen Summer Words and Kenyon College, and he has he has recently been published in Carmina Magazine, The Chamber Magazine, Fiction on the Web, and Black Sheep.
Linda Gould hosts the Kaidankai, a weekly blog and podcast of fiction read out loud that explores the entire world of ghosts and the supernatural. The stories are touching, scary, gruesome, funny, and heartwarming. New episodes every Wednesday.