This time I will definitely die, Jeffords thinks. He feels that this conscious thought affords him a certain immunity from such a fate, though logically he knows that’s nonsense.
As always, he chooses a window seat, not the aisle or—worst of all—the middle seat. The window seat is essential for a simple reason: Jeffords must remain in control of the window shade being up or down throughout the flight. At certain times it must be closed. At certain times he must open it, even though he dreads doing so, for, when he does, he finds himself trapped in one of three familiar nightmares.
There is the takeoff nightmare.
The interminable waiting at the gate, the frustrating stop and go traffic on the tarmac, as other airliners launch and land themselves. Then there is that initial air raid scream of the jet engines engaging. At this point Jeffords always braces for an explosion from a faulty fuel line or some other mechanical failure. He imagines humongous, spinning jet blades cascading through metal and glass and plastic and fabric and flesh. A cascading conflagration, a roar drowning out all screams. He envisions himself propelled through the cabin, still strapped into his seat, through the cockpit and windshield of the airliner itself. But no, not this time. This time, the brakes disengage, as they always have in the past (and always will?), and Jeffords is pushed back, deep into the flimsy seat in which thousands of bodies have been pressed before him. G-force, they call it. He wishes he could close the window shade now, but he never can bring himself to do so. Jeffords must witness the takeoff.
His mind begins whizzing with numbers. Often there are vehicles parallel to the runway, as there are now, moving at various rates of speed. Thirty, forty miles per hour, sometimes interstate speeds or more. For a few seconds the airplane lags these vehicles; then the jet is speeding past them. Eighty? One hundred miles per hour? There is a number, Jeffords knows, at which the plane will be able to physically leave the ground, but what is that velocity? What is that moment? And if the moment is lost? If the runway runs out? What then? What would striking chain link do to the airliner? A grass embankment? A concrete barrier? Interstate or water? A building?
But no, the plane makes its sudden, steep ascent, as always, and here Jeffords must press his face to the window, for statistically he knows that takeoff is the most dangerous part of any flight. Only a hundred, then hundreds of feet in the air, accelerating quickly, but then the throttle is suddenly pulled back. He envisages himself in an oversized bus that has reached immense velocity and has hurtled off the end of an opening drawbridge into the sky. The airliner’s nose is in the air at perhaps forty-five degrees or more, but Jeffords feels a sudden floating sensation followed by a sharp descent, his organs wrenched up. The airliner must be having some mechanical issue. An engine went out? But no. This is only a temporary blip or a bit of minor turbulence. The throttle is fully reengaged, and his organs settle back and down, down into his seat as the plane resumes its harrowing ascent into the sky.
Once this immediate danger is past, Jeffords must contend with the airplane meeting the cloud line, unless it is a particularly clear day (he schedules departures only by day, never by night). Turbulence, sometimes heavy, can occur here, after which Jeffords gratefully can shut the window shade again.
Then there is the cruising altitude nightmare, in which the plane flies far above the ground—either covered in a layer of whitish gray or dotted with puffy clouds of a variety of maddening shapes or clear, revealing faded, distant geometrical shapes or flattened blobs of brown or green land or dark blue or green bodies of water.
The plane’s engines no longer sound like they are tearing themselves apart at this stage. A false equilibrium feels established. A false calm. Ten thousand feet seems a reasonable height, in which sky and land are almost equidistant to each other somehow—geometrically balanced. But, of course, the airliner doesn’t remain at such altitude. It keeps ascending and reaches headier, more awful heights. Twenty thousand feet. Thirty thousand feet. Higher. Finally, the plane no longer climbs or descends, aside from random bumps of turbulence. All is comparatively calm, and Jeffords can almost for a moment believe they are sitting on the tarmac again, still if not silent.
But he knows they are high—yes, impossibly high. Higher than any mountain on earth. The pilot confirms this through the tinny speakers. That voice seems so distorted and distant that it’s hard for Jeffords to believe the pilot isn’t physically far away, across the country or even on the other side of the world. Which would mean that no one is flying the plane at all. Jeffords swallows once and feels acid biting at the lining of his already churning stomach.
Now that cruising altitude has been established, Jeffords has a choice to make: Open the shade and glue himself in sickly fascination to the great heights, the skyscrapers of clouds below, verifying that he and his fellow passengers are indeed strapped inside a fragile metal cylinder, hurtling along at an unthinkable speed? Or keep it shut, and pretend the plane isn’t moving at all or at least is on solid ground again?
This time, Jeffords can’t resist opening it. Fully aware of the game he’s about to play—putting off examining the deceptively slow-moving tableau outside—he raises the shade and presses a thick index finger upon the flimsy transparent plastic. It gives. Jeffords releases and presses upon it repeatedly, and the faux-glass rattles in its housing. This inner layer of plastic, he notices (as always) is stained, scratched, and smeared. He imagines thousands of filthy fingernails scraping the substance enough to scar it, a thousand children coating their snotty noses and smooshing their lips upon the artificial window glass. Jeffords muses with disgust that his head was also mashed onto this surface only tens of minutes before during the all-important takeoff nightmare. How often did the airline clean or replace this inner-plastic, he wonders? Monthly? Yearly? Less? Not nearly often enough, he guesses.
Beyond the clear plastic sits the opaque, beige frame in which the outer glass is embedded. At least he thinks it might be glass. It is thick but for one hole near the bottom of the window. This hole makes Jeffords uneasy since it leads to the sky and the wind rushing around the plane at half a thousand miles per hour. But no, there appears to be something even past this thick, clear shell, though this last barrier seems to his eyes as flimsy as the inner plastic. He knows that last layer must be deadly cold at thirty-five thousand feet. Jeffords stares for minutes at a time at the semicircle of frozen condensation above and beyond the hole in the mid-barrier. There must be a good, engineering reason for these holes. Maybe an escape route for the dynamic pressure between the air inside of the plane and out there in the howling void.
Inevitably, he focuses beyond the triple barriers of more or less clear plastic and/or glass at the dark blue sky above and the scenery below him. At these times, Jeffords begins by peering as far above the porthole as he can, trying to comfort himself with the infinity of dark blue above, but this only makes him increasingly aware of just how far above the earth he and all his fellows are. Jeffords begins calculating the outside temperature in his head. Negative twenty degrees Fahrenheit? Negative eighty? How much oxygen, if any, exists at thirty-five thousand feet? If he was suddenly thrust outside the cabin by a breach in the hull, how long would he last? Would he pass out from horror and oxygen loss, or survive until his body’s impact with the ground? His imagination sends him spiraling out of the plane itself, and, with his screaming, imagined form, Jeffords’ eyes are pulled down to the earth. Then all at once vertigo slams into him at the sight of the vast landscape below with its tiny shapes, and he slams the hard, opaque window screen down with a crack that briefly wakes a nearby infant. It cries out once and settles back down.
If sleep will come, it will come now.
It does not come.
After an indeterminate period of dread and hazy anxiety, the airliner finally banks and descends.
The landing nightmare.
Jeffords opens the shade. The sky’s hue has deepened with the coming of dusk. He feels the jet descending and that familiar floating sensation as the throttle is let up, but he briefly turns his face away from the small oval window, bothered, as he always is when landing, by the shapes growing larger and more substantial below him, white and red and yellow and blue and green and brown, flattening out and spreading. Sharpening. Becoming less faded. More substantial. More deadly.
Jeffords reminds himself that landing is not as dangerous as takeoff, statistically. But it feels more dangerous. It seems, in fact, wildly improbable. Jeffords has no idea how such a feat is accomplished, even with the assistance of a hundred cockpit gadgets and a room full of air traffic control staff. How can a pilot land an airliner from tens of thousands of feet in the sky, from which even large cities look like a train set as seen from a high rooftop—to a landing field the relative size of a penny? What magic makes the statistics bear out the safety of such a magic trick? It seems to Jeffords like crazy, quantum luck—the equivalent of rolling a handful of dice and coming up with the same sum a million times in a row. He thinks this time will surely be the one in a million time when the luck, the magic, fails.
He closes the shade.
Jeffords does not care for the sounds airplanes make during landing: the dinging bells, the creaking, the whooshing that should, in the name of decency, especially now in this modern age, be muted or utterly unheard. He does not care for the seemingly random extinguishing of the lights along the ceiling.
“We’ll be coming in for a landing in the next ten minutes or so, folks,” the tinny, deep voice of what is presumably the pilot says. “Welcome to Foyle, Alabama.”
With a start, Jeffords wrenches the window shade open again, making a much louder sound than intended. The infant on the other side the aisle again starts shrieking. This time, it doesn’t stop.
“Just make sure those seat belts are buckled, ladies and gentlemen,” the pilot-voice says after a few moments. And then adds, to Jefford’s ear almost sardonically, “We may be in for a little turbulence on our way down.”
As if on cue, the plane starts quaking, accompanied by a grotesque rattling sound, which comes dangerously close to a cracking noise. Again, Jeffords feels his innards jostled up and down and sideways. Muted gasps of the passengers during the bigger quakes. Leaning out for the proper viewing angle through his window, Jeffords notes with alarm that the right airliner wing, usually such as solid looking construct, is starting to flap at its end in a subtly bird-like manner. As if the material halfway down the wing and to its tip is made of rubber or, at best, the stuff of fake metal swords.
The city of Foyle below is green and basic—what Jeffords can see of it in the dusky sky. A smallish city only known for its proximity to the Gulf of Mexico—Foyle is a minor hub for a jet airliner this size, which is always on to more interesting, more important locales. Jeffords imagines the air traffic controllers down there in the south Alabama hick town, lazy and incompetent, picking their noses and smoking cigarettes on their control panels, oblivious of Flight 389’s approach—possibly absent from the old-fashioned tower altogether. Would the landing-magic hold this time, without proper technical assistance?
Jeffords is sweating heavily now, and the cabin quaking and wing flapping continues at close intervals. That baby’s shrieking has jumped a full octave and has increased in volume by at least fifty percent. Jeffords cringes, looking away from the window for the first time since before they took off.
He sees the passengers sitting next to him: a young, pregnant woman asleep in the middle seat and a large male figure, also apparently asleep, in the aisle seat next to her. How could anyone possibly be sleeping during this kind of turbulence?
And with that thought, Jeffords turns back to the window, pressing his face against the filthy plastic, and begins calculating again. How many feet up are they now? Surely no more than two thousand, judging by the cityscape. He starts tracking ant-sized vehicles on the roads below, which grow swiftly larger and larger until they resolve into Matchbox car size.
The tremors continue, worse than ever, and the woman next to him—now awake—is whimpering; possibly praying.
Jeffords has read about microbursts—they can form if heavy weather is in the area and have been known to smash even a large airliner into the ground. Is this what they are experiencing? What will it feel like to be slammed into the ground by such violent force? Will he have time to feel anything at all?
Jeffords’ ears pop.
He cannot see the airport yet, let alone the landing strip. Other passengers have started making growing sounds of distress. Crying. Exclamations. Groans. A single scream. A burst of nervous laughter.
Then, all at once, the turbulence smooths out, and he hears and feels the landing gear engage. He sighs with relief and hears the other passengers sigh and chat with each other. The landing-magic has not failed. Not this time. Jeffords looks down at the now hefty-sized buildings and suburban houses only hundreds of feet below, looking for the runway to appear under them within minutes if not seconds.
But then everything goes black outside his window. Not merely dark. Jet black.
There is a moment of complete, uncanny silence. No airline engine sound. No movement. No feeling of floating or acceleration or deceleration. Nothing at all. Jeffords’ mind, too, stops mid-thought. There is an intake of air throughout the cabin from all the passengers at once. Jeffords’ mouth falls open.
The tinny speakers engage again, crackling out static, painfully loud. The pilot’s voice speaks over it in a high-pitched falsetto.
“Maybe we shouldn’t have had that last bottle, ladies and gentlemen, because the co-pilot and I are both feeling a little plastered.”
The cockpit door slides open with a heavy clang. There is a churning, black smoke beyond it. Two figures, dressed in pilot uniforms and clinging to each other, stagger out of the door. Their heads and limbs disconnect from their torsos and fall into a jumbled wreck in the aisle. They appear to be mannequins. There is another moment of complete silence.
Then the passengers begin to laugh.
They are soon wheezing and croaking hysterically. The men are bouncing as they grip on to each other. The women, one in a pink blazer, the other in a yellow dress, hold their stomachs. Their makeup is all pink splotches and black smears. The children, too, are laughing—grotesquely, even the infant across from Jeffords, scream-laughs, a huge, toothless grin on its fat face. Everyone guffaws and weeps.
Jeffords begins laughing, too, in spite of himself, caught up in the general hysteria. He cackles until his stomach starts cramping, then falls onto the pregnant woman sitting next to him and roars. He pulls her cardigan sweater over his face and hugs her pregnant belly, weeping into it, kicking his legs helplessly. He feels her fetus kicking from within the tight stomach, and his laughter redoubles. When his fit subsides into gasps and sighs, he sits up again. Most of the passengers are still laughing, including the pregnant woman, who is now trying to crawl up the back of her seat in a delirious haze of hilarity, and the distorted static over the tinny speakers has doubled in volume.
Jeffords rubs his hand over his raw, wet face in growing disbelief. What has come over him? Could this all be some kind of elaborate, incredibly tasteless airline joke? No. Terrorists? How? Whatever the case, too much time has passed since their final approach. They must surely be on the ground by now—on the ground, with fire trucks on their way to put out the engine flames.
Yet Jeffords knows intuitively that little time has passed outside of the airliner, as if each passenger on Flight 389 has become stuck inside the molasses of a single, unfolding moment. He knows something has happened and is continuing to happen in slow motion—their fate suspended, moving by excruciating degrees just over a city none of them will ever see in objective reality.
Jeffords, too, can’t see anything beyond the vague, convulsing figures all around him. To his stinging eyes, the figures look all mixed up together, and something strange is happening to the seats and ceiling, and the floors are closing in, and the aisle looks warped. Something to do with visual distortions from all this black smoke? It is everywhere and is thickening, and much of the passenger laughter is mixed with wracking coughs and squelching noises and gagging. He is also coughing now; then spitting; then straining and vomiting.
As he gasps for clean air, Jeffords turns once more to his window, pushing his doughy face onto to the flimsy oval of plastic, as if he can move through it, and then he is succeeding—pushing his face into and through to the other side of the first scratched and gooey layer, face squeezing into it and into the pocket of clean air and the cool, cool glass material. Then through that. Maybe if he can push his face all the way through that last, mysterious layer of plastic or glass, he can finally see something familiar outside; some object or movement that might offer him reassurance—some last hope he could latch a statistical probability upon.
But beyond that final window-layer, there is only more choking smoke, more bodies entangled with plastic and glass and metal, speaking with a growing, unintelligible roar of static. Jeffords had envisioned his death in an aircraft conflagration a thousand different times; a thousand different ways. But as he breaks free of the terror, the fire, and a slow eruption of black smoke, he can finally see and hear for the first time in his life or in the unfolding process of his most lasting death: The dark mechanism behind the window shade, the roaring abyss within the broken city neighborhood the airliner is re-shaping into itself. The distorted screams and the laughter and the static and the words that speak beyond and within that static.
Finally and forever, he perceives the equilibrium in everything, as if his many-limbed body and mind—the thing that was once Jeffords and is at once more and so much less—is hovering in the midst of nothingness.