Roughly a year ago I posted a full novel, one chapter at a time, in order to get some feedback, and several of you were more helpful than I could have imagined. After having revised it once, I am re-posting a few chapters but can send you more if you’re interested. Saying “thanks” is not enough, but I will say it anyway. “Thanks.” Also – there are two questions at the end. I hope you make it that far.
Of all the times that Chris Babbage managed to suppress his fear of flying, this was the one when he should have listened to the voice that told him to go back home. He knew that his fear of flying was irrational and counterproductive, but something seemed different about the anxiety that was biting him while waiting his turn to pass through security. He double-, triple-, and quadruple-checked that he had his driver’s license and boarding pass that he had printed at home only hours ago. He zipped the chest pocket of his navy blue fleece pullover to secure the necessary documentation, then he patted the pocket once more just to make sure it was still there. Reaching down, he felt the pockets of his pressed khakis to make sure his wallet and cell phone were also where they belonged.
Noises caught his attention up ahead, just past the security line, coming from where people have to stop to reassemble themselves after removing belts and shoes for the x-ray scanners. Normally, he might not care, but his senses were on extra alert this day because, unlike most other flights, he was flying alone. There was no wife or child to talk to, no pre-planning which Disney park to visit first or list of lunch and dinner reservations to review with anticipation. This noise was different.
Craning his neck, he saw a huddle of people around one central figure, a mop of blonde hair. Through arms and legs, Chris could see a black sweater, a gold necklace, and dark jeans. He could see smiles and hear “Thank you so much.” He could see college-age boys high-fiving each other while waving pieces of paper. He could see others joining and then departing the small but growing huddle.
“Sir,” barked a man in an official, blue uniform, “step forward, Sir.”
Chris’s eyes snapped to attention. “Okay. Calm down.”
“When people don’t hear me the first three times,” the man said, “then I have to get their attention.”
“Sorry,” Chris said, his dark eyes sinking a little. After the security officer waved him to exit the body scanner, he re-buckled the belt that matched his soft, brown shoes. It wasn’t until then that he noticed that his belt needed to be pulled one more notch. Over the past three months, his body had become less like four years as a third basemen in college and more like fifteen years as a high school math teacher.
By the time he left the security check area, both the huddle and the noise had dispersed.
The twelve people still trying to stuff bags in overhead compartments were twelve people he wanted to grab by the neck and stuff into their seats. His anxiety settled back to earth, he was relaxed enough to notice the woman sitting next to him. He focused on her a little longer than he should have, feeling as if he had seen her somewhere before. It took only eye contact and a forced “hi stranger” smile for him to feel flushed with guilt just for looking too long. Fortunately for Chris, she seemed as unhappy as he was, and that was enough for him to not immediately dislike her.
They each fumbled for their seatbelts as the last few unseated passengers found their seats. Then they both fidgeted in silence as they awaited the phobic horror to begin. Chris reached for the little, one-inch arm that held his tray securely on the back of the seat in front of him. The switch was not perpendicular to the tray, and he moved it slightly so that it was perfectly pointing at a 6 o’clock position. Chris then reached to the same piece for the tray designated for empty seat on his left and adjusted that arm to 6 o’clock. He turned to his right where another tray arm was not aligned perfectly, but that seat was not empty.
The woman in black sweater and dark blue jeans was fishing through her purse and didn’t seem to care about the misaligned arm that was not pointing at 6 o’clock. Chris started, stopped. Started again, then stopped. When looked again at the little arm for the tray, pointing more at 5 o’clock instead of 6, his right leg bounced a little. Then his right hand reached up, and he scratched at the short, wavy brown hair that had receded enough for him to pay more attention to commercials about hair growing products. When the woman reached down to stuff her purse beneath the seat in front of her, Chris quickly flashed his right hand up, correctly aligned the arm to 6 o’clock, and folded his hands on his lap.
Although his eyes were aimed straight ahead, he could tell that she was eyeing him with curiosity. He watched peripherally as she looked forward at her seat tray, then back to him a little, until she seemed satisfied enough by something to stop glancing in his direction. The nervous anticipation had caused him to hold his breath, and he then exhaled with extra force.
“You hate flying too?” she said.
“I’m sorry. What?” He turned towards her, but his eye was caught by the fingers and unpainted nails of her right hand that grasped a bright, gold chain and crucifix, one very similar to the one he had not taken off for roughly a dozen years until three months ago.
“You seem about as nervous as me, so I figured you hate flying too.” She smiled and waited, but he did not smile back because he was too busy noticing how her blonde hair, both color and shoulder length, were nearly identical to his wife.
“I hate cookies that are not Oreos. I hate meetings after work. I hate traffic. I hate store-brand orange juice. But I don’t hate flying. I’m terrified of it.”
“Then there must be something really important going on in L.A. if you’re willing to do something that terrifies you,” she said.
“Very important.” He wondered if it would be rude to not introduce himself, and then wondered if he should care. It’s only a three-hour flight, he thought. I’ll never see her again. I’ll just explain that I’m tired and need a nap because I got up at 3:30 in the morning to make sure I was on time. Yep. I don’t owe her anything, so screw her and everyone else on this frigging plane.
He cleared his throat. “I’m sorry,” he said, turning back towards her and catching his reflection in the window beyond her face. “I’m usually not this rude. I usually like talking to people, but I’ve had a crappy week, and it’s barely started. And now I have to fly in a death trap for three hours. Please forgive me if I don’t talk much.”
“No problem,” she smiled again. His eyes caught a reflection of her crucifix as she twirled it before tucking it into her black sweater, then his eyes caught hers again.
Great, he thought, she thinks I’m staring down her shirt. His anxiety, already a ten, was a twelve. Do I explain? apologize? Anything? Dammit. He thought about how much easier his life would be if his fear of flying proved itself to be true. Then he thought about how stupid that was to say and that perhaps he had just jinxed the flight. He reached for the armrest, but instead of feeling soft vinyl he felt a slight shock. The woman next to him had also reached for the armrest but touched Chris’s hand instead. It was if she had dragged her feet across the carpet before touching him. Chris immediately snatched his hand away and gave her an unfriendly glare.
“Oh,” she gasped. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to -”
“No, it’s okay,” he explained. “I’m not like germ phobic or anything. I just got some kind of shock or something. Didn’t you feel it too?”
“I think so.”
She began to say more but instead stayed quiet, looking up at him with eyes similar to his son after a scolding. When she turned to the window, Chris was unnerved by what seemed like some kind of fire in her eyes. Her whole face began to glow as the first peek of sunlight reached over the horizon and across several runways from the eastern sky. He relaxed, a little.
Great, he thought. Now I have an obligation to talk to her. I was hoping to just keep to myself. But once you talk to someone, you open the door, and now they think they can make all kinds of small talk. Not as if I have a good track record talking to women. If I had any skill at all, I wouldn’t even be on this plane right now. I’d be at work, having a good day. Well, a decent day. And she would be home doing, whatever she does, and all would be good. But I’m an idiot. And because I’m an idiot, I’m on this plane doing idiot things. This woman has no idea she’s sitting next to an idiot. Congratulations, Miss Blonde Hair. You got the seat next to the idiot.
A feeling of déjà vu struck him. He was convinced he knew her name or had seen her before and was about to ask. He turned towards her but saw the wires of ear buds snaking up her shoulders and connected to her head. Chris watched as her lips mouthed words to something and her head nodded slightly. He too closed his eyes, but instead of music, his ears were filled with doubts and complaints.
Hours later he was dreaming that he was very tiny. So tiny that he was riding on a paper airplane that someone familiar but unseen had thrown through the window of a very tall building. A strong gust of wind knocked him off the plane, sending him spinning and flailing towards the ground. He awoke as if he were just punched in the stomach.
“What’s happening?” he gasped as his eyes almost left his skull. He noticed Ann’s left hand gripped the armrest so tightly that she was pushing herself into the seatback. The other set was tightly gripping her crucifix, holding it near her lips as she whispered something.
“We’re hitting a lot of air pockets,” she said through clenched teeth and teary eyes.
“They’re actually pockets of no air. A lack of air,” he corrected. “Like a vacuum. Not like a vacuum for cleaning your house or anything, but when there’s- ”
“Whatever,” she grunted, “but that’s what most people call them.”
“Most people are stupid,” he replied.
“Well, most people right now wouldn’t really give a shit because they’d care more about not dying. So if you don’t mind, please stop arguing about vacuums and tell me something positive to convince me we’re not going to die. Can you do that?”
The plane dropped again, losing a half mile of altitude in only two seconds. He watched Ann’s eyes tighten and squeeze out a few tears. More awake now, he looked around the cabin and noticed almost nobody else was talking, just a few soft cries and whispers. He slowly understood that the whispers were prayers.
Chris looked again at Ann’s hand as it seemed as if she was trying to crush the armrest. He turned forward, planted his back into the seatback as she had, and placed his hand on top of hers. He remembered a few hours back when her hand touched his and they shared a shock. There was no shock this time. It was more like a burn. It was starting to hurt, but he feared it would hurt more to not hold on to somebody.
Again, the plane dropped, and with it dropped the hearts of everyone on board.
“I’m not ready to die,” whispered Ann.
“Huh?” Chris asked.
“I’m not ready to die.” A little louder but more frightened.
“Who says you’re going to die?” She smiled a little.
“Are you always this practical?”
“Pretty much. One of the things that annoys people about me.”
“How many more are there?”
“Depends on who you ask.”
A fiery branch of lightning outlined the black storm clouds as a deafening crack sent a jolt through the plane as well as another static shock between the hands of Ann and Chris, but it was more than just static. It was enough that they looked at each other with questions. Good questions.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” said the pilot. “We’ve lost an engine, and we’re going to attempt an emergency landing. We need you to brace yourselves in crash positions. Please listen to your flight stewards as they repeat the procedures that you saw before takeoff.”
An Asian woman stood twenty feet up the aisle from them. They could see her arms and lips moving, and they could see she was slightly trembling and wiping her eyes with her sleeve, but they couldn’t hear a word of her directions. They both focused elsewhere. First, they were still trying to decipher the electricity that passed between them when lightning struck plane. Second, they repeated the words, “I’m not ready to die.” For the next two minutes, thirteen seconds, they said nothing else. “I’m not ready to die.” As they repeated it, the shock that had struck their hands had not subsided. It was not a static, dry-winter-air zap. It was a sustained and continuous shock that had begun but had not ended.
Chris and Ann kept their eyes closed tight with hand gripped over hand. Neither they nor anyone else could see the ground of the open field ahead coming closer. They couldn’t see the pilot or the rest of the crew mumbling their own prayers as well. Random moments of life flashed within each individual. Hugging a loved one. A first kiss. Lost in a forest. A wedding day. A child’s birth. A walk in Italy. A secret moment in the backseat of a car. A graduation ceremony. Moving away from home. The death of a pet.
Everyone on the plane was reliving their own peace and acceptance, hope and fear, promises and bargains. Chris and Ann were sharing a space. Within them, they were seeing each other’s moments of remembered life before the approaching threat of death. Chris could see Ann as an 18-year old getting a new car. Ann could see Chris as he watched his son get dressed for his first day of school. Somehow, they had this access to each other, but each was not aware of the other.
There was a growl, a squawking and squealing of a giant silver bird, like a metal hawk about to pounce on a rabbit running across a farm field. The squawk turned into something more like waves rolling across sand on a beach at both sunrise and sunset at the same time. And then there was so much sound that there was no sound. There was a rush of wind and light rain, tinted with the smell of fuel. Some remembered being a kid and going to the gas station with Dad and thinking how they liked that smell. They remembered how everything seemed safe with Dad. Dad the protector. They wanted and prayed for the protector. Now.
There was a warmth and a chill at the same time, each distinguishable from the other, not felt but just known. Some things you just know, like in a dream when you’re in a house that looks like just any house, but somehow you know whose house it is without them being there or ever having been there yourself.
There were some on the plane who could now hear Chris and Ann repeating “I’m not ready to die.” It echoed in them, and they joined in. They could all hear each other, feel each other. They just knew it. Some of them stopped, not all at the same time but scattered. Some of them continued. Some stopped pleading, but they didn’t want to stop. They had no choice.
Question 1: I was told that I have issues with point of view. Was that evident to you?
Question 2: Was it clear or unclear that the plane crashed at the end of the chapter?