Jack Snyder hopped on the airport shuttle bus and felt the anxiety tweak his stomach. His insides lifted and separated, much like the Jane Russell bra of yesteryear, without the accompanying positive vibe. Just the thought of flying made him shiver and he wasn’t on the plane yet. Heck, he wasn’t even at the airport. He was not looking forward to the flight home.
He had been on a much-needed vacation. But then, when wasn’t a vacation much needed? He spent a week baking in the south Florida sun, catching up with old friends and eating pizza and sushi. Now, it was time to head back north.
The shuttle sped up I-95 toward Fort Lauderdale’s airport. He tried thinking of other things but every shudder in the van brought his thoughts back to the flight home. The van’s turbulence reminded him of being thirty-thousand feet up and powerless. He didn’t mind take-offs all that much, and he almost liked landings (almost there, almost there), but what he feared most was the unpredictable turbulence of high-altitude flight. His overactive imagination helped him in his job as an illustrator for graphic novels, but it was positively deadly when out of control at 36,000 feet.
Jack checked his sea bag at the curb and ground out one last cigarette under the humid sun, as a sour tear of sweat perched on his cheekbone before rolling over the bony cusp and down his face. His dark hair hung over his forehead, humid beyond belief. his skin was less pale after six days in south Florida, but he still looked out of place in the tropics. He looked exactly like what he was, a guy who spent hours hunched over a drafting board penning and inking dark stories for fringe publications. Four hours and I’ll be home, he thought. People fly every day.
“Please bring your seat backs into a fully upright position and make sure that your seat belts are fastened.” From his window seat, Jack double-checked his seat and belt and wedged his back deep into the space between the seat back and the wall of the cabin. The kid in the middle seat next to him handed his iPod to his mother on the aisle seat, his round eyes a mixture of wonder and apprehension. A plane full of people and Jack felt isolated.
Jack wasn’t a drinker. Diverticulitis and a weak stomach prevented that, but he had taken two night-time cold tablets before boarding the airport shuttle and he prayed they would kick in soon. The jet taxied and waited on the runway, taxied and waited some more, then perched, paused, and took off, with Jack wedged into his hiding space as best he could.
The hard plastic of the wall behind the window provided a small comfort. Eyes open or closed? He could never remember which provided more relief. Jack’s chin bounced off his chest as a chime shook him out of a half-sleep. ”This is your captain speaking; it looks like we’ll have a smooth flight for most of the way. There may be a bit of turbulence but we should be able to fly around that with no problem. We are flying into a bit of a headwind so it looks like our flight time will be approximately four hours and fifteen minutes into Minneapolis-St. Paul airport. Sit back and enjoy the ride.”
Dang, I was almost asleep, Jack thought. He never allowed himself to swear when flying. Maybe if his thoughts were pure and he did everything right, the plane wouldn’t…stop it, think good thoughts. Jack hazarded a peek out of the plastic window port to his right. Well we’re flying, he thought.
Jack didn’t rent one of the portable DVD players the flight attendants were mumbling about over the intercom. He tried that on the flight down and the closed-in feeling of wearing the headphones had brought on the beginnings of an anxiety attack. How could he keep his senses attuned to every little nuance of flight with those dang headphones on? Nope. Sit, suffer, and pray were his only options. The cold tablets did seem to be bringing some relief. Jack felt separated from his fears and his head nodded during the first hour of flight. Jack heard a chime and opened his eyes.
“The captain has asked that you please return your seat backs to a fully upright position as we may be encountering a bit of turbulence.” He reached for the button to adjust his seat and found that we was already fully upright–his hands clenched on the arm rests. The kid next to him was sleeping, body and head lolling against his mother who was lost in a romance novel. A quick survey of the passengers saw nobody overly upset and Jack turned to look out the window. Maybe if he could see what was ahead it would help.
He didn’t see it at first. He stared at the clouds that were massing and tried to find the ground. Knowing that there was ground down there helped sometimes. A flickering of white caught his eye, just out there behind the wing. Was that a goddamned bird? Shit, Jack, watch your language.
Jack saw a white bird beating its wings, flying just behind the engine on the right wing. It was working hard pumping its wings, as if it must struggle with all its might to keep up. Ice formed in the pit of Jack’s stomach. What the hell was a bird doing this high up? Could it get sucked into the engine? Wait a minute. The engines sucked in at the front and spit out at the back. The bird was right behind the turbine. How could that be?
Jack turned to look at the passengers next to him. had they seen it? Should he tell them? He pressed deeper into the crevice between the seat and the bulkhead afraid to look outside. The flight attendants were nowhere to be seen. His fellow passengers weren’t noticing anything. And there seemed to be fewer of them. Hadn’t the plane been about full at take-off? Now there seemed to be more open seats. They couldn’t all be in the bathroom. He twisted in his seat to see if they were all lined up in the aisle waiting to use the head at the rear of the plane. No one was waiting. There seemed to be fewer passengers behind him as well.
Jack jerked back into his wedge position and squeezed his eyes shut. What to do, what to do? He opened his eyes and leaned forward. The bird was gone. No, wait. It was still there, only closer. It seemed to be beating its wings harder, trying to steer itself closer to Jack’s window. Turbulence shuttered the cabin and Jack’s heart fell. The bird was no longer flapping its wings. It seemed to be gliding, head streamlined into the wind, three feet from Jack’s window. Jack’s bowels loosened, but didn’t give way. Like watching an accident in progress, Jack’s eyes were glued to the white bird whose head was now turning toward Jack. The face was not of a bird, but rather of a small monkey. Huge eyes in the white fur-lined face fringed with gray and brown. There’s a goddamned monkey face on the bird! Chimes broke Jack’s spell.
“We will now be serving our complimentary beverage service. Please lower your tray tables if you would like a beverage. Serving our service? Who writes this stuff, Jack thought. His head whipped around toward the window. No bird. No turbulence. No nothing. A string of spittle hung from his mouth glistening in the sunshine streaming through his window. He shook his head and came completely awake. A damn dream?
The kid next to Jack was still sleeping. Jack looked at his mother who was staring at Jack’s drool. Busted, Jack thought, almost laughing. Sheepishly, he turned his head away and brushed the drool with the back of his hand.
“Musta fell asleep,” he said. The woman said nothing, only lowered her eyes back to the pages of her book. Jack lowered his tray table and looked up the aisle. Maybe he would have a small drink. The beverage cart was making its way down the aisle but was still seven or eight rows ahead of Jack. He gave one quick check back out the window and he jerked his eyes back toward the cart. The female attendant wasn’t walking behind the cart pushing it. She was floating behind the cart, her body trailing out behind her arms, her hands clenched firmly to the cart’s push bar. She held on to the cart with one hand and passed along a can of Coke and then a small plastic glass of ice to a passenger that was hidden from Jack’s view. Her legs were floating in an invisible breeze, smart skirt rippling just below her knees. She was bending an ankle back and forth, her sensible brown flat lifting off and on her heel as if she was enjoying it. What in the world?
Jack looked back outside his window. The bird was back, now inches away. Its body was facing forward, gliding now but its face looked at Jack, his owlish, monkey eyes wide with innocence. Fear? Suddenly the bird looked forward, folded its wings into even more of a gliding position and aimed down.
A wave of turbulence blasted the plane and Jack was lifted up in his seat. And he woke up. In the same position–the jet suddenly there, the seat suddenly there, the floor suddenly there, his arms and legs and feet pushing down hard. He knew he was awake now, as anyone knows the difference between right and left. Or right and wrong. And something was definitely wrong. An oxygen mask bounced in front of his face. Buzzers and chimes keened in the background. The woman and child next to him were bent over, heads between their knees, keening as well. The nose of the plane was pointed down at an angle Jack wouldn’t have thought possible. The only thing keeping him from falling forward into the seat back in front of him was his seat belt.
Without thinking, Jack twisted his head and looked out the window. no monkey-bird, only air rushing past. Jack twisted his head back the other way and looked over the backs of the mother and child. The flight attendant from his dream had strapped herself into the aisle seat. She hadn’t yet assumed the crash position. Her brown eyes, wide with fear, found Jack’s and bore into them. A fresh jolt made them weightless and her feathered hair floated up and around her face like fur. Like a monkey-face. And they fell.
“Buddy! Hey buddy, wake up.” Jack felt a jabbing on his right shoulder. He looked up into the face of the shuttle driver. ”Dude, you’re gonna miss your flight you keep sleeping like that.” Jack was jammed into the space in the far rear corner of the empty van, the driver’s sweaty polo shirt clinging to his portly frame as he leered over Jack, poking him.
Jack pulled himself together, grabbed his sea bag from the overhead compartment and disembarked. The shadow of the cement overhang at the airport entrance provided relief from the sun, but also managed to block what little wind there was. Half asleep, Jack waded through the heat to find a skycap, stubbing out a half smoked cigarette he had automatically lit upon leaving the van. He waited his turn in line, wishing he hadn’t put out his cigarette. A glance at his watch told him he wouldn’t have time for another if he wanted to catch his flight. Hell, he may still not make the flight if that woman and her iPod wearing kid ahead of him keep dragging their feet. Christ, hadn’t they ever flown before? How hard can it be? Just give the guy your tickets and put your bags in the space under his counter.
Dawdle, dawdle, dawdle. Would they ever finish? The other lines were even deeper than the one Jack was stuck in so he guessed this was his destiny. The woman’s oversized shoulder bag was jammed full. A book worked its way loose and fell to the pavement, further slowing their progress. Lost in his little head phoned green eggs and spam world, her kid didn’t even notice. Jack sighed and reached down, picking up the book–a fat romance novel by the looks of it, horrid illustration barking out its content to Jack. Job security, Jack thought. If the graphic novel gig goes to hell, I can always shoot a resume to Harlequin. I couldn’t do any worse than the doofus who drew this crap.
The woman noticed Jack and her eyes clouded with worry. No, I’m not trying to steal your book, lady. “You dropped this.”
“Thank you,” the woman said, grabbing sonny boy’s hand, finally finished with the skycap. ”Could you slip it back into my bag? My hands seem to be full.”
“Sure thing. Have a nice flight,” Jack said, thinking, want me to wipe your nose for you, too? The boy’s eyes craned back at Jack, a mixture of wonderment and apprehension on his face, as his mother pulled him toward the entrance and into the terminal. Jack checked his bag and headed toward the entrance. Out of the corner of his eye he caught a glimpse of white–something perched on the uppermost level of the parking facility across the crowded lanes of traffic from departures.
Funky looking bird, Jack thought, as he stepped away from the crowd and into the airport terminal.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Mark Snow spent years as a public radio host in south Florida, and more recently for Wisconsin Public Radio. Mark is a published cartoonist, a published songwriter, and a former Marine Corps NCO. In 2002, he moved back home to Superior, Wisconsin to further remove himself from the grid,or at least from masses of people. Mark has finished a first novel, The Helper, and is working on a third. He ran out of gas on the second novel, but still has high hopes for it. He currently lives in Superior.