“Please bring your seat backs and tray tables to an upright position in preparation for landing in Los Angeles.” The flight attendant’s familiar announcement came before Kurt Hoover expected it. Immersed in reviewing the presentation he was traveling today to present, he hadn’t noticed how far they’d descended toward the sprawl of L.A. outside the windows.
“Just as well,” he thought. “That’s as prepared as I can get anyway.” He shuffled the papers into his briefcase and stowed it under the seat in front of him, settled his head back and closed his eyes in hopes of avoiding small talk with the infrequent fliers occupying the seats next to him.
When he opened his eyes what seemed like an instant later, he immediately knew he hadn’t slept through the landing. It didn’t take an experienced flier to realize they were in a holding pattern. A glance past the young Iowa couple gawking out the window was one clue. So was a look around the cabin; bored flight attendants, impatient passengers looking at their watches every few seconds and sighing. Then there was the drone of the engines that revved up and backed off while the pilots searched for the position they wanted.
But as the holding continued, the aircraft made some unusual maneuvers. For several seconds and without warning each time, the engines roared as they went into a steep climb, then pulled back to start a dive, perhaps to get back where they’d started. Some wing-wiggling was thrown into the mix for reasons unknown. Kurt hoped the white-knuckled fear he felt wasn’t evident to his fellow passengers. He looked around, finding it apparent no one was paying attention him, or even concerned with anything else, it seemed. There was no reaction of others in the cabin to the movements of the plane; everyone either read, or napped, or drummed their fingers, or talked, or kept glancing at watches. Was he the only one that thought this was strange? He adopted the attitude of the others with a deep breath and settled back into his seat, hoping the aerobatics were over.
Hoover glanced back from his aisle seat over his shoulder for no reason, really. When he saw one of the flight attendants sitting on an armrest chatting with others from the crew standing around the galley behind her, he thought it odd. Normally, shouldn’t they be in their jump seats waiting to land like everyone else?
He thought he’d ask her to explain what was going on, but when he turned toward her he was surprised to see her take a long drag on a burning cigarette she held in the fingers of her right hand, posing like she thought it glamorous. Kurt glared at her without realizing how his stare looked. After all, for how long now had smoking been banned on U.S. flights? Now here’s a crew member openly smoking while they’re waiting to land?
“You got a problem, Mister?” Kurt habitually glanced at the attendant’s nametag to learn it was Jackie barking at him, he supposed for staring at her rule violation. The others loitering about the galley nearby cackled at her comment like a bully’s spectators on a playground, he thought.
“Nah, just thought you might have the courtesy to open a window or something.” He believed the nonchalant way he retorted was a good way to get her to put her smoke out and shut up. He began coolly turning his head back to forward when he saw Jackie smirk, and then nod toward the rear cabin door just behind her. As if her head’s movement flipped a switch, the cabin door popped out of the fuselage like a champagne cork and flew away, down toward the populous neighborhoods below.
While Kurt watched the landscape going past the open doorway in disbelief, his fellow passengers simply noticed the change without surprise. What the hell? There was good news: they were at a low enough altitude, he deducted, that no rapid decompression had occurred. Nothing more than an annoying breeze now came into the cabin, its inconvenience balanced by the welcome freshness of the air. It had been a long and stuffy flight.
“Hope that’s a little better for you, Sir.” The shot of sarcasm Jackie fired at Hoover was one he certainly would quote her to authorities of the airline later. With that, she flicked the remains of her cigarette over her shoulder, not toward the door but directly aft in the cabin, past the others of her crew as they took their seats for landing. The cigarette tumbled past them toward the rear just as the entire back end of the fuselage simply dropped off, exposing them to the outside even more so than the cabin door had moments before.
Kurt’s head remained turned toward the wide gap at the back of the plane. It seemed like the plane’s rear cone had simply fallen away, again without any reaction from anyone else. All he knew was that the cigarette butt had followed that cone like it had been flicked out a car window.
“OK; I’m alright, everything’s fine.” So what if he had been stuck in the nap that started with their descent toward their landing earlier? He was really just in a very weird dream, Kurt decided. “Might just as well get back to it, then,” he thought, leaned back and closed his eyes again. Only this time, he focused hard on keeping them closed. They were now on final approach, obvious from the sound of the engines and the gentle drop in altitude toward the runway ahead. He knew he could peek out the windows to see Century Boulevard’s hotels passing to confirm they were coming into LAX, but he opted to keep his eyes shut instead.
He clenched them shut hard, too, when he felt the sudden out-of-place drop to what was a hard landing, one that came with the shriek of the wheels’ rubber meeting the pavement of the runway. A long roll-out and taxi time to their jet way after landing is expected anywhere, no matter what the airport’s size. But not today. In an instant, they zipped across the tarmac until a sudden, final lurch, when the airliner screeched to an abrupt halt at what he knew – or hoped – must be the terminal.
Letting out the breath he’d been holding, Kurt’s peeled his eyes open as he mumbled, “Weirdest flight ever,” to no one in particular. And no one in particular heard him – in fact, no one heard him at all. He was alone on the plane. No one was in the cabin at all.
He looked around as he instinctively pulled up the knot on his tie. He leaned down to grab the handle of his briefcase before standing up in the aisle. He reached up to get his suit jacket from where he’d folded it into the overhead bin along with his rolling carry-on bag. How could everyone have gotten off the plane already? He didn’t think he had slept this time at all. Was he so hard asleep that he didn’t even feel the Iowa gawkers climbing over him to get out and off the plane with everyone else? Even the flight attendants are gone?
Kurt had been on hundreds of flights. Of all the oddities of their approach into Los Angeles, the oddest of all was this. He could explain away a lot of the rest of it with the assumption he had dreamed it while waiting to land. “I should have never taken the in-flight meal – I know better than that. Damn chicken.” Slapping himself in the face a couple of times, he shook his head, doing everything possible to make sure he was now really awake.
His jacket on, he extended the carry-on’s handle, grabbed his briefcase, and walked up the aisle to deplane. The cockpit was also empty as he passed by to walk up the jet way and into the all-too-familiar terminal. His wingtips echoed on the terminal’s floor as he entered the eerily empty building and headed for the escalators down. “I’ll be alright, I’ve just got to get out of here,” he sighed.
Already moving down the escalator before paying attention to where he was, he found the slope of the moving staircase shallower than it should be. There were two descending flights of metal stairs, with none coming back up toward him, just as it should be. Again, he knew this airport as intimately as any of the many he was in every week. But as he looked downward ahead of him now, it seemed he wasn’t getting nearer the bottom at the rate he should be. It was as if the end of the escalator was pulling away from him, lengthening his trip down to the level below.
Hoover checked his surroundings. Still alone with no one else in sight, he found the prominent walls on either side of the staircase their normal brown color. Above the top of its panels was a bright and clear blue sky, just as he expected. It was comforting to see not only the puffs of small white cumulus clouds but the tops of the terminal’s other buildings beyond that wall, all just as they should be. He felt relief that some normalcy seemed to be returning, the common open-air characteristics of so many California airports making him a bit easier.
The landing that would end the escalator was coming now. He grew closer to it, beginning to look forward to how fast he would grab his checked bag and rush to the hotel bar, to down a double cocktail moments after he had his room key. In fact, he could use a couple, or maybe even a few drinks after this flight.
Stepping off the escalator sent a new shiver up his spine. His footing and the feel of his rolling carry-on brought his eyes downward to confirm he was walking in grass. Then, a rack of rentable airport luggage carts, appearing to be buried about halfway in the soil, the growth of the grass overtaking them as if in a poor effort to try to hide them.
Then came a darkening in the sky, and he believed thickening clouds must be rolling in. Bringing his eyes up to level, he found the lawn that made up the floor was now extended far into the distance ahead of him. The brown side walls stood taller than before, too. Ahead of him at the end, a brown wall that matched the sides now blocked passage to what should be the baggage claim area. He turned to look behind him, hoping for an escape route away from here. The top of the escalator he’d come down now had a matching brown wall from its top down to the level he was on now, blocking that as well. He realized he was boxed in. The terror he’d been suppressing through these recent events welled up strong within him now.
That baggage claim area was the place that should lead him to the exit, to get him outside; should lead him to where he could grab the shuttle, to get him to the hotel, get him to his cocktails, get him to someplace he could tell somebody – anybody – the incredible story of his day, of what had been this flight, this terminal, this…
And the darkening came with a suddenness – and Kurt Hoover was enveloped in pitch black.
“My mom said I had to be back inside by now.” Six-year-old Keegan was old enough to know better than to push his luck with Mom so soon after deciding to give the family German Shepard they called Arfie a bath in their living room.
Sean knew better than to cross his best friend’s mother either. “OK, but we’ve got to finish with a good one, both of us!” The boys played in Keegan’s back yard today the same way they spent most of their afternoons. Tomorrow, maybe they’d be in Sean’s yard next door. Either way, they’d have their “stuff” outside with them, usually in the grass.
This afternoon they were at it with their favorites: they had their airplanes. The plastic models of a variety of aircraft including biplanes, fighters, and airliners of years gone by had been left to Sean by the Grandpa he missed so badly. He and Keegan shared everything with each other, but the planes reminded Sean so much of Grandpa the two kids played with these more than any of their other toys. Some days they ran around the yard laughing hysterically in a mock dogfight of biplanes while Arfie jumped at the boys, creating a hilarious ballet as he’d try to snap the little planes out of their hands.
Today, though, they sat in the grass while they zoomed the models around with their little hands, up and down from their imagined airport. The shoe box that kept the planes overnight in Sean’s room sat on the ground between them. Today, the box acted as their airport terminal.
“This last one I make is gonna be my best landing, you watch!” Keegan made one more move up as high as he could reach, smoothly bringing it down to a gliding stop next to the shoe box.
“Me, too! But my pilot’s in a hurry!” Sean was a little more rambunctious than Keegan, and would not be so polished with his last landing of the day. “Up, up, up in the sky!” He jerked the Airbus model up to his arm’s length and then down, around, and back up again, adding his own jet sounds. As he gyrated the craft, the plane’s back door popped out, from which the boy’s got no excitement – it seemed to happen all the time. “Oh, he’s coming in hot, he might be breaking up!” With that, Sean screwed off the plane’s tail cone, another thing that had become commonplace the more the two played with the models.
“Better get him down quick!” At Keegan’s direction, Sean brought the plane down to the ground with a thump. He shoved the now-landed aircraft up against the box with a final push, as both boys sounded a screech like burning rubber as it stopped against the terminal’s box. “OK, everybody’s home now!”
With that, Keegan slapped the lid over the top of the shoe box, the two boys gathering it along with their other things to go inside.