F O R E W O R D
Before we begin, I should make it clear that this story takes place in the early 1960s, when aeroplane rules were a lot laxer. One could brandish a cigar or even holster a pistol. Now, consider if you will, the thoughts of one James Augustus McCoy, as he goes airborne in a helm of metal, held together by nothing more than nuts and bolts, and is rocketed to well over twenty thousand feet in the sky, at speeds faster than any other passenger vehicle can even attempt. His “nightmare” treads the razor edge between the possibility that it’s merely James’s psyche feeling especially cruel, or that what he thinks he sees hanging off the edge of the plane is real.
James McCoy was not one to usually opt to fly. He took the train whenever he could, or else simply drove around. But every now and again he was forced into rattling metal death traps over twenty thousand feet in the sky. Today was one of those days. And the worst part? It could have been avoided if people were ever so slightly more competent at their jobs.
James’s company was in the middle of a major deal with one of their German competitors. Despite having their base of operations just under a thousand kilometres away, their prices seemed to consistently shrink James’s company’s market share, year after year. This year though, someone upstairs decided to do something about it and rang up the Germans.
The technical term for what conspired is “price fixing”, but James preferred to think of it as simply allowing British products complete freedom in the British market.
(Along with getting me a pretty fat bonus)
Anyway, everything was going swimmingly, and their little team of five (it was important to keep these things hush-hush) was working in excellent coordination. Until, that is, Oliver Anderson fantastically cocked it up. He allowed his son onto his work computer — for what reason, James will never be able to understand — and the boy ended up sending some rather offensive emails to the Germans. Again, why the boy did it, or how he thought up the deed and the contents of the email, will forever be lost on James, but he sure was glad to see the child being reprimanded. He never could stand children, which was why he didn’t have any of his own. He was happily married to a wonderful woman and adored their rescue pup.
Troublesome children aside, it was now up to James to sort out this royal screw up, so here he was, flying to Germany before they decide that the English just aren’t professional enough to be able to execute and honour this deal.
He strapped into his seat, nervously clinging to both armrests after having tightened the seatbelt as much as he could. He stared out the window, at the men loading the luggage into the cargo hold below. He wondered what would happen to the poor soul who accidentally wound up stranded in the hold, perhaps adjusting a bag at the back or correcting the fastening on a bag he noticed on his way out, the others oblivious to his absence. He’d probably be tossed around from side to side, smashing into the cargo. When the plane finally landed, they’d find him unconscious, or even dead, in a pool of blood, body and bones shattered beyond hope of creating a semblance.
James shook his head clear; he mustn’t think of such things. Especially when there was so much else that could go wrong much more easily. The plane could lose connection with ground control, their frequency could be hijacked, flight paths may get distorted or deleted, turbulence might toss them abou-
He drained the small plastic bottle from the seat pocket in front of him and pulled his nightcap down. If things were going to go wrong, he’d rather he goes in his sleep, instead of having to face the danger head-on. With that in mind, he popped another ibuprofen in, hoping he wouldn’t hit the OD limit, and swallowed it dry.
Ten minutes later he wasn’t feeling any sleepier, so he resigned to his fate and reached for the Daily Mirror dutifully placed in front of him. He glanced fleetingly at the date — Thursday, February 16th, 1961 — as if to confirm that he really was having to do this and read the top news.
The front-page headline read “Eight Hours to Live” and was a story about the United States ice-skating team, and how their plane crashed and exploded, killing all seventy-two passengers and crew. James’s stomach tightened, but somehow the rest of his muscles loosened, almost as if they were giving up. They were just kids, none of them more than twenty years old. Their entire lives ahead of them. But it had been snatched up by the brethren of the very thing he now entrusted his life to.
When his body finally reverted to normal, James got up to go to the bathroom, thinking a cold splash of water would help him. He picked out the small kit he had prepared from his bag in the overhead compartment and made his way down the aisle.
He stood by the sink and gripped the edges with both hands, staring directly at his reflection. His eyes, while otherwise brown, seemed a disorienting shade of red. He could see veins popping out of his forehead, crossing over and under each other, pulsating dangerously hard, feeling like they were about to rip themselves out of his body.
James doused his face with water and looked up again. His face seemed back to normal. He took slow, deep breaths as he stood in the small, closet-like cabin in a contraption held together by nuts and bolts at a lethally scary height.
He dug deep into the kit until he reached the bottom and his hand coiled around the .950 he had kept in there for the last five years. He sat on the toilet and stared at its pure black body gleaming in the drowsy yellow light of the cubicle. It would be so easy to just pull down on the little piece of metal and end this misery. But he shook his head clear of these thoughts and put it back.
He had performed this routine every time he’d flown, never once going beyond just looking at the gun. Sometimes he wondered why he didn’t just leave it at home if he was never going to use it. But then, for reasons he didn’t really know himself, he always kept it back in.
He had actually made it all the way to the taxi without it once, and as he sat in the car, James breathed a sigh of relief, thinking his fear had finally been washed away. But the moment he could no longer see his house in the rearview mirror, he told the driver to turn back around and had dashed in to grab it.
The moment James returned to his seat, the seatbelt sign lit up, and the captain’s voice came crackling through the PA system,
“Ladies and gentlemen, this is your captain speaking. We seem to be experiencing some mild turbulence. Nothing to be afraid of, but I’m going to have to ask you all to return to your seats and strap in, nevertheless. Cabin crew, please take your positions.”
“Nothing to be afraid of…” James muttered under his breath. He’d decide that for himself, thank you very much. And he decided there was something to be afraid of and tightened the seat belt until it was pressing into his stomach, set his seat upright and pulled up the window shade. His head lolled to the side as he stared unseeingly out of the window, his mind wandering all over the place, -
(the ibuprofen seemed to be finally working)
- and James doing nothing to stop it — he needed to at least mentally get out of here.
A jolt of lightning snapped him back to the present. He jerked his head towards the window and froze almost instantly. There was a man hanging onto the wing, clinging for his life. He swayed up and down and side to side, slamming into the wing over and over again. He feverishly clawed his way forward, as if he saw the tiny window as a form of solace. The man’s mouth opened and closed repeatedly but James couldn’t make out any of the words he was saying. Frantically, James spammed the button to get an air hostess over.
“Man…wing…lightning…window.” He had trouble forming full sentences, only being able to produce fragments accompanied by frenzied arm movements. When he looked over again though, there was no one there.
(He was there just a second ago, though!)
The air hostess looked at him with a mixture of concern and confusion and asked if James wanted anything.
“A gin and tonic. Four parts tonic.” If drugs didn’t cut it, alcohol would have to.
Lightning flashed outside again, and the figure had re-appeared.
Only this time it wasn’t the same person. He took a closer look at the figure in peril and paled when he realised who he was.
“Anna…” No, it couldn’t be. Not his Anna. He inched closer to the window, hoping, praying it wasn’t her. Oh, but it was. But it wasn’t. It was just a figment of his imagination. He wouldn’t call for help again. He watched helplessly as she was tossed around like the man before her and watched with desperation as she too tried to make her way forward. But the winds were not as merciful as last time. They did not allow her to make her way to the window as her predecessor had. James would have even broken it himself and tugged her in. But no. The winds picked her up, bashed her against the body of the plane and sent her downwards, barrelling towards the ground and certain death (if she wasn’t already gone).
James called for the air hostess again but didn’t even try to offer an explanation this time. He just sat there, curled up in his seat. The air hostess — Claudia, her name was — draped a blanket over him and brought him a warm cup of tea saying, “It’ll help with the nerves”.
Needless to say, it didn’t, but James fell asleep soon after that, his body completely exhausted from the stress it had been handling.
Just under an hour later, Claudia gently woke James up from his pool of sweat and told him they were preparing for landing. He had made it, but felt like some part of him had died up there all the same.
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Original photo by Nur Andi Ravsanjani Gusma