"On behalf of the Captain and the crew, we'd like thank you for choosing us for your air travel. If we could get everyone settled in with seats in full upright position and seatbelts securely fastened, we'll try to get off the ground a little ahead of schedule today."
He caught the eye of the pert blondie seated to his right and shared a quick grin, enough to bond them in a "same boat" kind of way, no awkward banter necessary. She looked very Corporate to him, all office chic, hair up, mid-thirties; pretty with just a dollop of cute. She probably got hit on all the time by 'row mates.' Not him. Not today, though seeing her did make him extra glad he looked expensive in his 400 - count herringbone blazer.
Why she had the aisle at say, 5'3" maybe 110, compared to his 6'2" girth in the middle seat was a source of instant, low thrumming resentment. He had requested the aisle, always did.
"And if you'll just turn your attention to the front of the cabin there'll be a short safety demonstration…"
He completely glazed over during the safety procedural. It occurred to him that he'd never in his flying life listened to them. Not ever once. If this bird went down he'd likely have no idea what the hell to do. He couldn't sleep on flights either, which wouldn't matter to him on an afternoon jaunt such as this, save for his mild jealousy of the hoodied dude on his left - your garden variety Brooklyn skinny pant type - who'd already found the sweet spot between seat and window and checked out.
But he liked hearing the part about flight 1307 running early, and feeling that comforting rumble as the plane's ground speed gained intent. He and Blondie exchanged a second glance.
"Here we go," she exhaled.
He checked his watch. "Yeah, go figure. On time? What kind of mixed up airline is this?"
She nodded with a pair of raised, thinly manicured eyebrows and looked ahead again.
"Aaand hello folks, this is your Captain speaking. All kinds of good news today, light winds in from the northwest and clear skies should make for a pretty smooth ride, weather on the other end's calm and we're cleared for take off. So on behalf of my copilot I'd like you all to sit back, relax, enjoy the flight, and, as always…no talking."
A murmur of laughter emanated from the sold-out coach cabin.
"Just kidding folks. The crew'll vouch I'm a bit of a joker. But I do take your comfort and safety seriously, and luckily we will be running a little early today if you all behave yourselves. Thanks again for flying with us."
Running indeed… Sometimes these short work trips felt like an aimless, serpentine jog to avoid connection or feeling.
At this point in life, his ability to feel much at all had been fossilized in numb resignation. His own, highest flights - career, romantic, whatever - always seemed to land him in some fucking teachable moment, and then here he'd be again, ground zero, one more dream down. As far as the Universe needed to know, he'd come to understand less than ever, and was just fine with it. What he'd done, he'd done, warts and all. Anyway, solitude and middle age were getting along quite well these days, now that he'd gone long enough without being on the way into or out of some entanglement. Women, even the few who made up for the rest, always cost him.
No, alone was better.
As the jetliner lifted into the air, he offered up a little prayer. He never flew without it. "Dear Lord, I pray for a safe flight for myself and for those I love. I pray for those I love."
It didn't make real sense; his family was sparse and scattered, but the fact that he'd flown safely since he'd first muttered it back in another life made it a comforting if compulsive ritual. He wasn't an especially superstitious man, but if he was going to be thirty thousand feet in the air at the hands of strange, possibly inebriated virtual strangers, he figured there wasn't anything too loopy about a damn prayer.
He shifted, trying to position his legs. Extra twenty-five pounds, meet the fucking middle seat. And there were few things more soul satisfying than having to imply - with a grin no less - that he had to pee (or worse) to a pretty gal like Blondie, and then half - climb over her to do so.
At least she was awake. A spontaneous snore to his left made him thankful Hoodie didn't have the aisle.
"Aaand folks, it's the Captain here again; we're approaching our cruising altitude of twenty eight thousand feet, at which point you should be clear to move about the cabin. Total flying time today should be two hours, thirty-seven minutes, and our lovely flight attendants will be coming through shortly with some refreshment and snack options. I'll also be back soon with a fun surprise announcement. Stay tuned."
He cocked an eyebrow, looking straight ahead. Two female attendants exchanged an inquisitive smirk.
"What could be a more fun surprise than early takeoff, pal?" he muttered. "Free booze, I guess."
A breathy, polite laugh from the right. He turned to her. She really was quite pretty.
"Free booze!" she softly mock-cheered. A passing attendant caught it and giggled as she leaned in and drawled conspiratorially.
"Right? We're like, 'what's Frank talking about?' He's dry, that one, when he's in the mood."
"You and, um…Frank? You guys on a lot of the same flights?" he asked.
"Enough. Do the same route enough you're bound to get to know some of the regulars." She punctuated their exchange with a light tap on Blondie's armrest and continued on her way. Both attendants looked early 40's, he'd say, holding on to Southern Belle pageant runner-up looks by a thread, professional wink - smiles on permanent standby.
He eased his seat back and closed his eyes. He'd not had time to raid Hudson News for magazines he'd never ordinarily read, so he strategized to save Sky Mall for the final leg.
Funny enough, he found himself fading. Maybe precisely because he was so sure he couldn't sleep, he'd zoned out enough for his neural transmitters to take him the rest of the way. Next stop, dreamland…
"Aaaand hey there folks, Captain here again. We've reached our cruising altitude, and if you look out your windows you should see plenty of sky. Clear and blue as far as you look. Nice, right? So now, ladies and gents, for that surprise announcement I was telling you about. It ah, seems we have a very special passenger on board with us today."
His eyes half opened.
"Now now; it's not a movie star or Lady Goo-goo or Gaga. But it is someone of very special and rare achievement. Someone I'd say is absolutely deserving of much more attention than they've gotten."
Heads began craning over seatbacks. Blondie looked up from her laptop, half frowning, half-smiling.
Something felt off. The pilot's tone had shifted, ever so slightly. The attendants were still moving snack carts up the aisle though. Maybe that was a good sign.
Hadn't Southern Belle said this guy was prone to…
"Aaaand it's not a kid on his first flight, a Nobel Prize winner, or great scientist - or a great anything, really. Haha, my copilot here's trying to guess too. To be honest, I doubt most of you have ever heard of him. But he is very special, this guy. Very special to me."
He began to feel warm, and not in a good way.
"His name's Charlie. Charlie McShane."
"Jesus Christ," escaped him disguised as a cough, as heat exploded into his temples. He glanced around, settling on Blondie, who turned to him, lips slightly parted.
"And Charlie? Well, Charlie fucked my wife."
The sudden collective intake of breath seemed to coax sweat out of the pores of his entire head, and that goddamn herringbone blazer started to feel a lot heavier.
Off mic, the sound of another, muffled male voice could be heard.
"Larry I'm fine. Just give me a sec…"
Both female attendants had stopped dead in their tracks on either side of the cart, mid-aisle. They looked toward the first-class partition, where their male counterpart stood, visibly alarmed. People were turning to their neighbors, as the cabin woke into a low chattering roar. Blondie's hand loosely covered her mouth.
He tried to slow and deepen his breathing. Keep it together. Think. "He...probably had a few too many in the admiral's lounge," he offered her.
The cart was being pushed quickly back towards the cockpit. One southern belle turned to the cabin as they reached the front. "Folks, I'm not sure exactly what's going on up front, but we're gonna go see if…"
Just then a jolting thud sounded from the front, and the plane sharply bounce -jerked, causing both female attendants to grab the nearest seatbacks, as a short, surprised shriek burst from the passengers. The sound system cackled again.
"Sorry about the unintended turbulence folks. My co-pilot was distracting me up here. But it looks like I got him to take a nice nap."
The cabin-wide tension instantly escalated. Loud, frightened inquiries sounded from every direction. A baseball capped young dad bolted up, instructing his toddler twins to stay put, and began charging toward the cockpit, only to be gently and firmly led back to his seat by the male attendant, who simultaneously directed his words to everyone.
"People, please stay calmly in your seats. We're working on this situation. I'm not sure what's happened with our Captain, but we've got an air marshal up in first class, and we'll have everything in hand as soon as we..." He trailed off.
"Now, where was I? Ah, yes. Charlie McShane and my wife. Well, now, for two long years I've hoped to meet you, Charlie. Imagine my surprise, learning you'd be up here in the friendly skies with me today. The Universe does indeed work in ironic ways. By now I'm sure you've guessed who I am, of course - Captain Frank Tozer, loving husband of Tracey Coles - Tozer. That is, former husband and subsequent widower of Tracey. You remember Tracey, don't you, Charlie?"
Tozer's honeyed voice remained calm, ethereal even, unlike the nervous cacophony of the crewmembers as they began urgently knocking on the cockpit door. The male attendant suddenly burst through the first class partition, slowing to a forceful walk as he reached a rear wall phone. Tozer continued.
"Y'know, back when I was just a kid dreaming of being a pilot, a big part of its appeal was being 'In Charge', powerful; being the man. I don't remember 'cuckold' anywhere in the job description. But there's God, right Charlie? Flipping us the bird - while we make plans."
He felt naked, even as his clothes made him feel claustrophobic. He rubbed his throbbing temples. "Christ. Tozer. Why now?" he whispered to himself. There had to be a way to handle this. Had to.
He checked out Blondie. She looked terrified, frozen. Hoodie hadn't twitched.
Random pitched babbling caught his ears:
"Sounds like he killed his wife."
"Could he be suicidal?"
"What does he want with this guy?"
"They should break into the cockpit."
Anger blazed in him next. This was not a turn he deserved. Not after everything had already played out. This was operatic, absurd. Things always deviated, by now he knew that. But he didn't have to stay this helpless; he knew that too.
"Ask my friends, Charlie and they'll vouch I didn't delve too deeply into it after it happened - your affair, I mean. They were impressed with the strength I showed. But it's amazing, what despair does so quietly to the inside of a man. How's that old song go? - 'When you got nothin', you got nothin' to lose.' I wonder if you know that feeling at all these days."
Knocking and female shouting outside the cockpit could be heard both through the speakers, and from up front.
"But I'll get to my main point: I've got a proposition for you, Charlie. You know, like when you propositioned my beautiful wife once upon a time? I hope you'll give me the courtesy of a yes, just like she gave you. You'll be helping not just me, but actually all your fellow flyers today..."
The male attendant had hurried back up the aisle and threw himself into the jostling outside Frank Tozer's sealed-off lair.
Tozer sighed, almost a moan.
"Please, folks, stop banging on my door."
The plane suddenly dipped, hard. People lurched forward; some were thrown screaming to the floor.
His arm shot out reflexively, preventing Blondie from banging her head, even as he and Hoodie each smacked into their respective seatbacks. Hoodie woke, blinking repeatedly.
"Something with the Captain," was all he could muster for the kid.
He was completely in his head now, working; staving off panic. What to do. What to do.
"I'm sorry about that folks, but I've got to get through this, or tragically, none of us will. Any of you people ever actually been through my kind of humiliation? You folks who gallivant around the world courtesy of invisible chauffeurs like me? We're not just a bunch of neutered middle aged Ken dolls up here. Hell, for some of us this cockpit is all the power we have left in the world. And me, I'm not sure I want it anymore."
"He's gonna take us down!" came a shout.
"We gotta help the crew, charge the door!" came another. A few men got up. People helped each other off the floor. Children were crying.
Frank Tozer was still chillingly calm.
"I've been tweaking my plan a bit on the 'fly', if you'll pardon the pun, Charlie. And it is a process like flying itself: You always know your destination, but you're off course almost the whole ride. So you make little corrections along the way until eventually you land on a dime. My dime today is Closure, USA. Be it up here in the air, or straight down to the ground. Closure. Tracey's closure - her karma really - was just. But this, Charlie, this is our moment."
His hands gripped the seat rests, pale from squeezing.
"He like, mad about something?" came dully from his left.
He turned to Hoodie, glowering.
"Maybe you should go back to sleep."
"So here it is: I want you to get up from your seat, Charlie McShane. I want you to get up and introduce yourself to the passengers. I want you to say the following: 'My name is Charlie McShane, and I am responsible for taking away Frank Tozer's life. I deserve far worse than any pain I caused him' Then I want you to apologize to these fine people, and come to the cockpit, to me. No one will stop you, right crew?"
The plane made a slight jerk again. The panicked reaction, however, was deafening.
"Don't worry folks. That was just boring old convective mixing of tropospheric air; your everyday turbulence. And by the way, I'm happy to surrender quietly if all goes well. But let's not begin our descent any earlier or faster than originally planned, OK Charlie? Hate to say it's on you, but well, it is. So. Why don't you stand up now?"
He swallowed hard, feeling feverish.
He could just rush the cockpit now. He was bigger than anyone on the crew, that lunatic would open the door for him, and he'd…No. The co-pilot was clearly unconscious - or worse. Who'd fly this fucking death tube?
So he'd reason, non-violently. Get in and remind Tozer why he was responsible…
…And what then? It was doubtful that reason would prevail, given the guy's state. What in God's name was the bastard thinking?
"You melodramatic fucking loser," he whispered, but couldn't hear his voice at that altitude. Even blinking seemed to hurt. He began subtly rocking back and forth.
Was this it? Really? Here, in the middle seat of yet another flight he no longer understood?
"Listen Charlie, I'm not going to hurt you. I don't wanna spit on you, or shake your hand either - you're not worth a damn site of any of it. But I do want to see you, see who you are and have you look me in the eye. Don't say anything. Just look me in the eye. Then you can turn around, go back to your seat. I'll even turn off the fasten seatbelt sign so we can all relax. And folks, that'll be the last you hear from me. Scout's."
All right. Now he at least knew what Tozer wanted - for the moment, anyway.
He wasn't sure if they would land on Frank's dime, but life sure as shit seemed to turn on one.
Blondie's laptop had toppled off her tray table, unnoticed by her mascara-streaked eyes. An attendant was running to the rear again, picking up the phone. She was fighting tears, whispering on and off.
"No I don't know the condition of the copilot…. we haven't been able to…I…yes, I have the seat assignment, but I can't risk the… well where would we…I realize that, but sir…."
"So I'm going to need to hear some positive developments spit spot folks! The way I figure it, either Charlie McShane makes a move in, say, oh fifteen seconds, or we plummet to the earth. How's that for early arrival?"
Desperate shouts began to pierce the cabin air like un-aimed arrows.
"For God sakes, Charlie, get up!"
"Show yourself Charlie!"
"We don't care what you did, just do what he says!"
"If my crew would be kind enough to give a knock & holler when Charlie's on the way I'd appreciate it. Meantime, I'm ah, gonna give us all one last little preview of what will immediately follow an unsuccessful countdown."
Another dip, this one the worst. The plane twisted viciously down and right. Luggage flew out of overhead bins as those fabled overhead oxygen facemasks deployed. Computers crashed to the floor. People were thrown from their seats onto the sky - blue carpeting, some landing atop others. Blondie shrieked as she shot forward and right, her belt severely compressing her torso like a Heimlich maneuver.
The loud collective cry of the passengers quickly gave way to helpless, child-like whimpers. Those avowed cockpit chargers would need a moment to regain their equilibrium. Not that that was going to save anyone…
"Here we go Charlie…. fifteen, fourteen…"
He looked around, pushing air out from his lips. Shit, he was actually shaking.
"Thirteen, twelve, eleven…"
Things always deviate. He wiped his brow quickly. Why be surprised. Make a move. The cabin took on an ominous silence, like the eerie, dead pink skies before a tornado.
"Ten…come on up man…nine…"
The tenor of the passenger pleas quickly rose again. This was it.
He cleared his throat loudly.
Blondie turned to him, her eyes almost catatonic. "Ladies and…gentlemen, my name is Charlie McShane, and I am responsible for taking away Frank Tozer's life. I deserve far worse than any pain I caused him."
She had shifted up out of her seat. She stood there for a moment, her words sinking into the shocked silence. "I'm…sorry," she muttered.
She cast him one last glance, and wiped a blond strand from her sticky face.
He watched, not breathing, as Charlie quietly drifted up the aisle, towards the cockpit.
Hot, sleep-bad breath on his left ear. Hoodie. "Fuck. It was Charlie like…Charlene? Fuck." He allowed a sigh. "Let's hope for all our sakes the Captain keeps his word."
The young fellow nodded solemnly and collapsed back into his seat, shaking his head. "Well, just in case, my name's Spider. Well…Ben."
"Kyle," he replied, wiping his forehead without turning. "Kyle Mishenko."
As he lumbered toward baggage claim, his herringbone blazer now tucked under one arm, Kyle watched the scene unfolding through the huge airport windows; a sea of red and blue lights surrounding the plane, and news vans piling up as close as they were permitted.
People crowded around every TV at every gate, as live news about the harrowing drama on board Flight 389 came through - it's eventual safe landing, the injured but stable copilot, and the arrest, without incident, of Captain Frank Tozer. Reporters had swarmed the traumatized Charlie McShane, but she'd have none of it. She'd been questioned briefly, examined by medics, and released.
Damn, did he need a nap before the meeting…
Charlie jerked from half sleep and rose from the bed, pulling her robe tight. She was too spent to think twice before answering the gentle, insistent knock on her hotel room door. She wearily pulled it open.
"Yes? Can I…" her eyes narrowed for a moment, then focused in recognition. She tried an awkward half-smile. "You were…next to me, right?"
Kyle stood before her, an apologetic grin on his face.
"Yes. Sorry if I woke you," he offered, before slipping softly inside.
She took a few steps back.
"You've been through a lot today, ma'am," he continued. "And may I say that was very brave up there on that plane. I was ready to say I was you."
He was crossing past her, toward the bed.
"Um," Charlie began, "I'm not sure what you…can I…"
He turned to her and held up his hand reassuringly.
"Again, I'm real sorry, miss. This should have been much smoother. I don't know what Tozer was thinking today. Scared me half to death, if you wanna know the truth. I mean, why hire me if he's going to go off on his own like that."
He sighed, looking down for just a moment. "But a job's a job, and he paid me half, plus travel. So I gotta stick to my end."
She furrowed her brow.
"Half?" she cocked her head slightly.
He remembered that look. Blondie. He let out a barely audible chuckle.
"Come to think of it, he'd better figure out a way to get me the rest."
From under his herringbone blazer he pulled out the silencer-muzzled 40 gauge with practiced, professional speed.
She really was quite pretty.
About the Author
Luckily, the actual pilot who inspired this story is only guilty of subjecting passengers to a few (very funny) inflight one-liners, thus ensuring Peter Zizzo a safe landing in NYC, where he continues to make records and write stories.