Authors: Stephen King (ed),Bev Vincent (ed)
He unstrapped, stretched his legs, glanced through a window as the captain’s voice came over the speakers telling him that they were flying at a height of 34,000 feet at a speed of 536 miles per hour.
Through the window he could see very little. The sky, the clouds below, the tip of a quivering sheet of metal which was a wing. Old stuff. The blonde stewardess was far from that. She swayed down the aisle, caught his eyes, responded with instant attention. Was he quite comfortable? Would he like a pillow? A newspaper? A magazine? Something to drink?
“Brandy,” he said. “With ice and soda.”
He sat on the inner seat close to the wall of the cabin so that she had to step from the aisle in order to lower the flap and set out his drink. He lifted his left hand and touched her knee, slid the hand up the inside of her thigh, felt her stiffen, saw the expression on her face. It was a compound of incredulity, outrage, interest and speculation. It didn’t last long. His right hand reached out and dug fingers into her throat. Congested blood purpled her cheeks, eyes popped, the discarded tray made a mess as her hands fluttered in helpless anguish.
Within his mind the automatic clock counted off the seconds. Fifty-two…fifty-three…fifty-four…
He pressed the stud on his ring.
The flap made a little thudding sound as it came to rest, the brandy a liquid gurgling as it gushed from the miniature bottle over the ice. She smiled, poising the punctured can of soda. “All of it, sir?”
He nodded, watching as she poured, remembering the soft warmth of her thigh, the touch of her flesh. Did she know that he had almost killed her? Could she possibly guess?
No, he decided as she moved away. How could she? To her nothing had happened. She had served him a drink and that was all. That
Brooding he stared at the ring. You activated it and went back fifty-seven seconds in time. All you had done during that period was erased. You could kill, rob, commit mayhem and none of it mattered because none of it had happened. But it
happened. It could be remembered. Could you remember what had never taken place?
That girl, for example. He had felt her thigh, the warm place between her legs, the yielding softness of her throat. He could have poked out her eyes, doubled her screaming, mutilated her face. He had done that and more to others, pandering to his sadism, his love of inflicting pain. And he had killed. But what was killing when you could undo the inconvenience of your crime? When you could watch the body smile and walk away?
The plane rocked a little. The voice from the speaker was calm, unhurried. “Will all passengers please fasten their safety belts. We are heading into an area of minor disturbance. You may see a little lightning but there is absolutely nothing to worry about. We are, of course, flying well above the area of storm.”
Frank ignored the instruction, still engrossed with the ring. The unpolished stone looked like a dead eye, suddenly malevolent, somehow threatening. Irritably he finished his drink. The ring was nothing but a machine.
The blonde passed down the aisle, tutted when she saw his unfastened belt, made to tighten it. He waved her away, fumbled with the straps, let the belt fall open. He didn’t need it and didn’t like it. Frowning he settled back, thinking.
Time. Was it a single line or one with many branches? Could it be that each time he activated the ring an alternate universe was created? That somewhere was a world in which he had attacked the stewardess and had to pay for the crime? But he had only attacked her because he’d known he could erase the incident. Without the ring he wouldn’t have touched her. With the ring he could do as he liked because he could always go back and escape the consequences. Therefore the alternate universe theory couldn’t apply. What did?
He didn’t know and it didn’t matter. He had the ring and that was enough. The ring they had offered a lousy hundred dollars for.
Something hit the roof of the cabin. There was a ripping sound, a blast of air, an irresistible force which tore him from his seat and flung him into space. Air gushed from his lungs as he began to fall. He gulped, trying to breathe, to understand. Arctic cold numbed his flesh. He twisted, saw through streaming eyes the plane with one wing torn loose, the metal tearing free as he watched, the plane accompanying his fall to the sea five miles below.
An accident, he though wildly. A fireball, a meteor, metal fatigue even. A crack in the cabin wall and internal pressure would do the rest. And now he was falling. Falling!
His fingers squeezed in frenzied reaction.
“Please, Mr. Weston.” The blonde stewardess came forward as he reared from his seat. “You must remain seated and with your safety belt fastened. Unless—?” Diplomatically she looked towards the toilets at the rear of the cabin.
“Listen!” He grabbed her by both arms. “Tell the pilot to change course. Tell him now. Hurry!”
A fireball or a meteor could be dodged that way. They could find safety if the course was changed fast enough. But it had to be fast! Fast!
“Quick.” He ran towards the flight deck, the girl at his heels. Damn the stupid bitch! Couldn’t she understand? “This is an emergency!” he shouted. “The pilot must change course immediately!”
Something hit the roof of the cabin. The compartment popped open, metal coiling like the peeled skin of a banana. The blonde vanished. The shriek of tearing metal was lost in the explosive gusting of escaping air. Desperately Frank clung to a seat, felt his hands being torn from the fabric, his body sucked towards the opening. Once again he was ejected into space to begin the long stomach-twisting five mile fall.
“No!” he screamed, frantic with terror. “Dear God, no!”
“Mr. Weston, I really must insist. If you do not want to go to the toilet you must allow me to fasten your safety belt.”
He was standing by his seat and the blonde was showing signs of getting annoyed. Annoyed!
“This is important,” he said, fighting to remain calm. “In less than a minute this plane is going to fall apart. Do you understand? We are all going to die unless the pilot changes course immediately.”
Why did she have to stand there looking so dumb? He had told her all this before!
“You stupid cow! Get out of my way!” He pushed her to one side and lunged again towards the flight deck. He tripped, fell, came raging to his feet. “Change course!” he yelled. “For God’s sake listen and—”
Something hit the roof. Again the roar, the blast, the irresistible force. Something struck his head and he was well below the clouds before he managed to regain full control. He activated and found himself still in space, gulping at rarified air and shivering with savage cold. To one side the shattered plane hung as though suspended, a mass of disintegrating debris as it fell. Tiny fragments hung around it; one of them perhaps the blonde.
The clouds passed. Below the sea spread in a shimmer of light and water. His stomach constricted with overwhelming terror as he stared at the waves, his lurking acrophobia aroused and tearing at every cell. Hitting the sea would be like smashing into a floor of solid concrete and he would be conscious to the very end. Spasmodically he activated and, immediately, was high in the air again with almost a minute of grace in which to fall.
Fifty-seven seconds of undiluted hell.
Repeated over and over because the alternative was to smash into the waiting sea.
The Fifth Category
Tom Bissell is one of America’s best and most interesting (they are not always the same) writers. In addition to nonfiction, such as the book-length
Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter
, he has written scripts for video games such as
Gears of War
and co-wrote the critically acclaimed
The Disaster Artist: My Life Inside The Room, the Greatest Bad Movie Ever Made
, which became an award-winning film starring and directed by James Franco. Bissell, who has covered the gulf wars as a journalist, has also found time to write some extraordinary short stories. This tale of the author of several controversial legal memos awakening on a deserted airliner on a flight from Estonia is one of his best.
John awoke somewhere over the Atlantic Ocean. He felt statically electric, his brain malnourished. Oddly, though, he did not remember falling asleep, or even wanting to fall asleep. He didn’t sleep on planes, ever. He worked. His last memory: drinking a Diet Coke, chatting with his neighbor, Janika, a tall Estonian woman with a mischievous-wood-sprite face, who told John she was on her way to the United States for her first visit. John certainly did not remember pulling the blanket up to his chin or inserting behind his head the wondrously soft pillow he now felt there. And he would have remembered. A bedtime habit of his, dating from childhood, was putting a memory lock on his sleeping position--the spoon, the scissor, the dead man, the fetus, the sprawl--just before the final fade. Only twice in his life had he found himself in the same position upon waking. John thought sleep was a kind of time travel. Things happened, thoughts formed, body parts moved--and you would never know.
Janika was gone. She had probably opted for a stretch. Europeans and their in-flight calisthenics, their applause on landing. The cabin’s every lozenge window shade had been pulled down. The only illumination was provided by the glowing orange ellipses of the cabin’s running lights. John lifted his window shade. What he saw could not be. His flight landed in New York at 4:00 P.M. It was not a night flight. And yet, outside: night. Janika’s seat, John now realized, was not the only vacant one. The remaining forty-odd business class seats were also empty. He lunged for his seatbelt.
The cozily paired thrones of business class were spread spaciously throughout the cabin, and no overhead luggage compartments hindered his movement around them. Many were draped with twisty blankets. Others had headphones still plugged into their armrest jacks. Half a dozen pillows littered the floor. Carry-ons remained stuffed under a number of seats. One aisle over, someone had left the seat tray extended, and on it sat a perfume-sized bottle of red wine and a plastic glass. Hovering above every seat was the same sense of sudden abandonment.
Something had happened, he thought, that gathered everyone’s attention back in coach. A drunken Finn punching out a flight attendant. A heart attack. He drew a crisp mental X, for now, through any other possibilities. John whipped aside the thin blue curtain that allowed those in coach merely to imagine their deprivation. His hand sought the steadying reality of the gray, white-speckled partition from which the curtain hung.
Before him spanned thirty darkened rows of unfilled seats. Out of shock he took a single step forward. He reached for his iPhone, sensing its absence before his hand even touched his pocket. Despite the darkness, he saw a few crude shapes on the first row of seats: paperbacks, newspapers, a briefcase. It grew darker the deeper into the rows he walked, as though he were entering a synthetic jungle.
How fundamentally wrong it felt to run down the narrow aisle of a commercial aircraft. When he reached the tight dark aft quarters he felt trapped in a bewilderingly unfamiliar closet. His hands fumbled for the Braille of the visible world. The attendants’ jump seats were up. Adjacent to one of them was a mounted flashlight, which he pulled from its cradle. He slashed a blade of light across the kitchen, its long silver drawers looking like they belonged in a submarine, and over an unloaded dinner cart pushed into the kitchen’s deepest recess. He turned, the light passing an overhead container marked FIRST AID, then brought the beam to bear on one of the plane’s exit doors—an immense thing, less like a door than an igloo’s facade. Out of its tiny porthole John saw layers of wing-sliced cloud swirl in the starless night. He turned to the attendants’ control panel, complicated by numerous knobs and buttons. Even though it was a Finnair flight, everything was in English. At the bottom of the panel was a red EVAC button. He worked his way up past several CALL buttons (all dark), a small green screen glowing with utterly unfathomable information, a public announcement button, and finally the lighting panel, which held not buttons but knobs, all of which he began turning.
In the harsh new light he opened the door to the lavatory, half expecting to find a magically immense room in which the several hundred people who boarded this flight were waiting with pointy party hats and confetti. But it was empty, shockingly white, and smelled of shit and spearmint. Transparent blisters of standing water adorned the sink’s metal basin.
He charged back up coach, through business class, and found himself at the cockpit door, which had a thick, reinforced look. “Hardened,” was the technical term, he believed. How to proceed was unclear. Any display of forcefulness so close to the pilots seemed to John both unwise and potentially unlawful. So he knocked. When no one answered he attempted to open it. Locked. He knocked again. He noticed a small, knee-level cabinet. Inside were four yellow life jackets and some kind of heavy steel air compressor. He looked at the fore’s exit door, another glacial immensity he was not sure he could figure out how to open if he tried. But why would he want to? That he was already considering this a possible exit did not, he realized, bode particularly well.
He was sweating now. His body, as though having at last accepted, analyzed, and rejected the information his mind had sent forth, began some pointless counterattack. From his stomach, the staging area, his body spit his most recent meal into his intestinal coils. He stood there, clenched, listening to his heart pump, his lungs fill and empty. The curtain hanging between voluntary and involuntary function had been torn from its runners. His nervous system seemed a single concentration lapse from going off-line.
He pounded on the cockpit door, shouting that something had happened, that he needed help. When, finally, he stopped, his forehead came to rest against the door’s hardened outer shell. His breath was as sour and microbial as a Petri dish. He felt weak, white-bellied, and exposed. He then heard something on the door’s other side and jumped back. Slowly, he closed back in, fitting his ear within the cup his hand formed against the cold metal. On the other side of the door, in the cockpit of a plane with no passengers, someone was weeping.
He had been advised not to travel outside the United States by his lawyer, his sympathetic university colleagues (he had more than most would have guessed—John was nothing if not the soul of faculty-meeting affability), and those few from Justice to whom he still spoke. But when an invitation to speak at a conference (“International Law and the Future of American-European Relations”) in Tallinn, Estonia, was first extended six months ago, John did what he always did: he talked to his wife.
One of the things he appreciated most about leaving government service was that he could, once again, talk to his wife about work. Anyone who lived within his mind to the degree that John did asked for nothing more perfect than a companion able to step inside that mind when invited and leave before asking was necessary. For the last two years she had been his confidante, sentinel, nurse, and ballast. It was, nevertheless, one of his marriage’s longer, more difficult nights when a number of his so-called torture memos were leaked, and then, without any warning to him, declassified and disavowed. His wife was not the only person with whom he had proved able to clarify his intentions in writing the memos. Any journalist who took the time to see John invariably came away admitting that the purported werewolf seemed a decent enough sort.
After telling his wife about the conference invitation, he admitted, “My first thought was to say no. But I think I may want to go.”
Two years ago, a complaint accusing John of war crimes had been filed in a German court; the gears of this particular justice had since scarcely turned. Another suit was filed six months ago, in a California court, by a convicted American terrorist and his mother, who claimed John’s memos had led to his maltreatment while in U.S. custody. John did not dispute—though of course could not admit—that the wretch had been poorly treated in custody, but drawing the line back to him evidenced a kind of naive legal creationism. While John’s travel was by no means formally restricted, the thought of leaving American airspace filled him with unfamiliar apprehension. This shocked him. It also emboldened him.
“Don’t route your flight through Germany,” his wife said. “Or France. Or Spain. I’d avoid Italy, too, for that matter.”
She thought he was joking about wanting to go, he realized, and he waited a moment before telling her what he liked about Estonia, a young country with memories of actual oppression. He had always been interested in the nations of the former Soviet bloc and post-communist countries in general. (His parents’ flight from Korean Communism was, after all, the only reason he was an American.) He did not think he had any cause to fear Estonia, which was an official American ally in the war. Was his wife aware that there were only a million Estonians in the world? Maybe it was a Korean thing, but he felt strange kinship with small, frequently invaded, routinely pushed-around nations. He admired, he said somewhat grandly, their parochial ambitions. He was now shamelessly appealing to his wife’s own complicated feelings concerning her Vietnamese heritage.
She asked how he could be certain it was not simply a trap to publicly humiliate him. To that he already had something of an answer. The event’s organizers had promised, unprompted, that no topics would be discussed beyond John’s willingness to discuss them. They were aware of the lawsuits and promised him full escape-pod capability during any line of questioning. (“Escape pod.” His words, not theirs. Like any nerd who grew up in the 1970s, John was always good for a
reference.) The U.S. embassy, moreover, was “aware of” John’s invitation. (“Aware of.” Their words, not his. A middling embassy like Estonia’s was no doubt heavily staffed with Administration flunkies and professional vacationists. Given that John was the only former member of the Administration who insisted on talking about the decisions he had made while part of it, he was as popular among them as a leper bell.)
“But you’ll talk about it all anyway,” she said, “won’t you?” John often reduced his lawyer to similar frustration. He was not afraid to defend himself, provided his interlocutor was not obviously carrying a torch and kindling. After John had granted an interview to
his lawyer did not speak to him for a week. Then his lawyer read the not entirely unflattering profile that resulted. “You’re a smooth one, Counsel,” he told John.
John smiled at his wife. Of course he would talk about it all. He knew what he could and could not say. He was a lawyer.
When he told the event’s organizers he would be able to come, they expressed as much surprise as excitement. He would be the only American, they said, and as such an invaluable part of the discussion. It was agreed he would speak alone, at the close of the conference, for an hour, and then answer questions, some of which, they warned, might be hostile. It all sounded fine, John emailed back. He had faced more bloodthirsty rooms than he imagined Estonia could muster. Before agreeing, he checked in with the embassy in Tallinn. They acknowledged the conference and wished him a successful trip. The last he would hear from them, he suspected.
Six months later, he spent two hours laid over in Helsinki’s airport. When two Finnish security guards stopped near John’s exit to chat, he was not sure why he felt so nervous. It was not as if Interpol had issued a warrant for his arrest. But what man could truly relax knowing that courts on two continents entertained the possibility he had committed crimes against humanity? He supposed he was brave for being here. No, actually. This thought disgusted him. He was a teacher and a lawyer, in that order. He did not recall the last time he raised his voice. He did not recall once, in his four decades, having intentionally hurt anyone. The Finnish guards walked away.
He boarded the flight to Tallinn with reenergized anonymity. By the time he saw his spired, red-roofed, seaside destination appear outside the starboard window, he knew he had made the right choice. It was noon by the time he reached his hotel in Tallinn’s Old Town. Check-in was surreally pleasant. The conference’s organizers had sent flowers. He called them to ask for directions to that night’s conference hall, which, as it happened, was less than three blocks away, in another hotel, the Viru. No, no thank you, he could make his way there on his own. His talk was scheduled for 8:00 p.m. This meant he had an afternoon to spend in Tallinn. He did so by sleeping off the circadian catastrophe of shooting across ten time zones.
By 5:00, he was awake, showered, dressed in a cement-colored suit with a blue shirt (no tie), and wandering Tallinn’s Old Town in search of dinner. The organizers had offered to send someone, but no. He wanted to announce his conference presence with the same powerful abruptness he used to enter his classrooms. If any of the conference’s participants were indeed seeking to confront him, the fewer pressure points with which they had time to acquaint themselves the better.
The charms of Tallinn’s Old Town were myriad and entirely preposterous. No actual human beings could live here. It looked like a soundstage for some elvish epic. The streets—the most furiously cobbled he had ever seen—appeared to shed their names at every intersection. Most took him past pubs, restaurants, shops selling amber, and nothing else. It was easy to distinguish the tourists from the locals: everyone not working was a tourist. Outside a medieval restaurant off the town square, young Estonians dressed like the maidens and squires of the Hanseatic League watched as their co-workers reenacted a swordfight. On one block-long side street, a blast of methane wind took hold of him: the sewage coursing through three-hundred-year-old plumbing was one bit of Tallinn’s past in no need of recreation. The similarity of the Old Town’s many ornate black church spires confused him. Every time he settled on one as his compass back toward the Viru, he realized it was the wrong tower. For two hours, he was always at least slightly lost.