Stories come at different times and places for me — in the car, in the shower, while walking, even while standing around at parties. On a couple of occasions, stories have come to me in dreams. But it’s very rare for me to write one as soon as the idea comes, and I don’t keep an “idea notebook.” Not writing ideas down is an exercise in self-preservation. I get a lot of them, but only a small percentage are any good, so I tuck them all into a kind of mental file. The bad ones eventually self-destruct in there, like the tape from Control at the beginning of every Mission: Impossible episode. The good ones don’t do that. Every now and then, when I open the file drawer to peek at what’s left inside, this small handful of ideas looks up at me, each with its own bright central image.
With “The Langoliers,” that image was of a woman pressing her hand over a crack in the wall of a commercial jetliner.
It did no good to tell myself I knew very little about commercial aircraft; I did exactly that, but the image was there every time I opened the file cabinet to dump in another idea, nevertheless. It got so I could even smell that woman’s perfume (it was L’Envoi), see her green eyes, and hear her rapid, frightened breathing.
One night, while I was lying in bed, on the edge of sleep, I realized this woman was a ghost.
I remember sitting up, swinging my feet out onto the floor, and turning on the light. I sat that way for a little while, not thinking about much of anything... at least on top. Underneath, however, the guy who really runs this job for me was busy clearing his work-space and getting ready to start up all his machines again. The next day, I — or he — began writing this story. It took about a month, and it came the most easily of all the stories in this book, layering itself sweetly and naturally as it went along. Once in awhile both stories and babies arrive in the world almost without labor pains, and this story was like that. Because it had an apocalyptic feel similar to an earlier novella of mine called “The Mist,” I headed each chapter in the same old-fashioned, rococo way. I came out of this one feeling almost as good about it as I did going in... a rare occurrence.
I’m a lazy researcher, but I tried very hard to do my homework this time. Three pilots — Michael Russo, Frank Soares, and Douglas Damon — helped me to get my facts straight and keep them straight. They were real sports, once I promised not to break anything.
Have I gotten everything right? I doubt it. Not even the great Daniel Defoe did that; in Robinson Crusoe, our hero strips naked, swims out to the ship he has recently escaped... and then fills up his pockets with items he will need to stay alive on his desert island. And then there is the novel (title and author will be mercifully omitted here) about the New York subway system where the writer apparently mistook the motormen’s cubicles for public toilets.
My standard caveat goes like this: for what I got right, thank Messrs Russo, Soares, and Damon. For what I got wrong, blame me. Nor is the statement one of hollow politeness. Factual mistakes usually result from a failure to ask the right question and not from erroneous information. I have taken a liberty or two with the airplane you will shortly be entering; these liberties are small, and seemed necessary to the course of the tale.
Well, that’s enough out of me; step aboard.
Let’s fly the unfriendly skies.
Bad News for Captain Engle. The Little Blind Girl. The Lady’s Scent. The Dalton Gang Arrives in Tombstone. The Strange Plight of Flight 29.
Brian Engle rolled the American Pride LIOII to a stop at Gate 22 and flicked off the FASTEN SEATBELT light at exactly 10:14 P.M. He let a long sigh hiss through his teeth and unfastened his shoulder harness.
He could not remember the last time he had been so relieved — and so tired — at the end of a flight. He had a nasty, pounding headache, and his plans for the evening were firmly set. No drink in the pilots’ lounge, no dinner, not even a bath when he got back to Westwood. He intended to fall into bed and sleep for fourteen hours.
American Pride’s Flight 7 — Flagship Service from Tokyo to Los Angeles — had been delayed first by strong headwinds and then by typical congestion at LAX... which was, Engle thought, arguably America’s worst airport, if you left out Logan in Boston. To make matters worse, a pressurization problem had developed during the latter part of the flight. Minor at first, it had gradually worsened until it was scary. It had almost gotten to the point where a blowout and explosive decompression could have occurred... and had mercifully grown no worse. Sometimes such problems suddenly and mysteriously stabilized themselves, and that was what had happened this time. The passengers now disembarking just behind the control cabin had not the slightest idea how close they had come to being people pate on tonight’s flight from Tokyo, but Brian knew... and it had given him a whammer of a headache.
“This bitch goes right into diagnostic from here,” he told his co-pilot. “They know it’s coming and what the problem is, right?”
The co-pilot nodded. “They don’t like it, but they know.”
“I don’t give a shit what they like and what they don’t like, Danny. We came close tonight.”
Danny Keene nodded. He knew they had.
Brian sighed and rubbed a hand up and down the back of his neck. His head ached like a bad tooth. “Maybe I’m getting too old for this business.”
That was, of course, the sort of thing anyone said about his job from time to time, particularly at the end of a bad shift, and Brian knew damned well he wasn’t too old for the job — at forty-three, he was just entering prime time for airline pilots. Nevertheless, tonight he almost believed it. God, he was tired.
There was a knock at the compartment door; Steve Searles, the navigator, turned in his seat and opened it without standing up. A man in a green American Pride blazer was standing there. He looked like a gate agent, but Brian knew he wasn’t. It was John (or maybe it was James) Deegan, Deputy Chief of Operations for American Pride at LAX.
“Yes?” An internal set of defenses went up, and his headache flared. His first thought, born not of logic but of strain and weariness, was that they were going to try and pin responsibility for the leaky aircraft on him. Paranoid, of course, but he was in a paranoid frame of mind.
“I’m afraid I have some bad news for you, Captain.”
“Is this about the leak?” Brian’s voice was too sharp, and a few of the disembarking passengers glanced around, but it was too late to do anything about that now.
Deegan was shaking his head. “It’s your wife, Captain Engle.”
For a moment Brian didn’t have the foggiest notion what the man was talking about and could only stand there, gaping at him and feeling exquisitely stupid. Then the penny dropped. He meant Anne, of course.
“She’s my ex-wife. We were divorced eighteen months ago. What about her?”
“There’s been an accident,” Deegan said. “Perhaps you’d better come up to the office.”
Brian looked at him curiously. After the last three long, tense hours, all of this seemed strangely unreal. He resisted an urge to tell Deegan that if this was some sort of Candid Camera bullshit, he could go fuck himself. But of course it wasn’t. Airline brass weren’t into pranks and games, especially at the expense of pilots who had just come very close to having nasty midair mishaps.
“What about Anne?” Brian heard himself asking again, this time in a softer voice. He was aware that his co-pilot was looking at him with cautious sympathy. “Is she all right?”
Deegan looked down at his shiny shoes and Brian knew that the news was very bad indeed, that Anne was a lot more than not all right. Knew, but found it impossible to believe. Anne was only thirty-four, healthy, and careful in her habits. He had also thought on more than one occasion that she was the only completely sane driver in the city of Boston... perhaps in the whole state of Massachusetts.
Now he heard himself asking something else, and it was really like that — as if some stranger had stepped into his brain and was using his mouth as a loudspeaker. “Is she dead?”
John or James Deegan looked around, as if for support, but there was only a single flight attendant standing by the hatch, wishing the deplaning passengers a pleasant evening in Los Angeles and glancing anxiously toward the cockpit every now and then, probably worried about the same thing that had crossed Brian’s mind — that the crew was for some reason to be blamed for the slow leak which had made the last few hours of the flight such a nightmare. Deegan was on his own. He looked at Brian again and nodded. “Yes — I’m afraid she is. Would you come with me, Captain Engle?”
At quarter past midnight, Brian Engle was settling into seat 5A of American Pride’s Flight 29 — Flagship Service from Los Angeles to Boston. In fifteen minutes or so, that flight known to transcontinental travellers as the red-eye would be airborne. He remembered thinking earlier that if LAX wasn’t the most dangerous commercial airport in America, then Logan was. Through the most unpleasant of coincidences, he would now have a chance to experience both places within an eight-hour span of time: into LAX as the pilot, into Logan as a deadheading passenger.
His headache, now a good deal worse than it had been upon landing Flight 7, stepped up another notch.
A fire, he thought. A goddamned fire. What happened to the smoke-detectors, for Christ’s sake? It was a brand-new building.
It occurred to him that he had hardly thought about Anne at all for the last four or five months. During the first year of the divorce, she was all he had thought about, it seemed — what she was doing, what she was wearing, and, of course, who she was seeing. When the healing finally began, it had happened very fast... as if he had been injected with some spirit-reviving antibiotic. He had read enough about divorce to know what that reviving agent usually was: not an antibiotic but another woman. The rebound effect, in other words.
There had been no other woman for Brian — at least not yet. A few dates and one cautious sexual encounter (he had come to believe that all sexual encounters outside of marriage in the Age of AIDS were cautious), but no other woman. He had simply... healed.
Brian watched his fellow passengers come aboard. A young woman with blonde hair was walking with a little girl in dark glasses. The little girl’s hand was on the blonde’s elbow. The woman murmured to her charge, the girl looked immediately toward the sound of her voice, and Brian understood she was blind — it was something in the gesture of the head. Funny, he thought, how such small gestures could tell so much.
Anne, he thought. Shouldn’t you be thinking about Anne?
But his tired mind kept trying to slip away from the subject of Anne, Anne — who had been his wife, Anne, who was the only woman he had ever struck in anger, Anne who was now dead.
He supposed he could go on a lecture tour; he would talk to groups of divorced men. Hell, divorced women as well, for that matter. His subject would be divorce and the art of forgetfulness.
Shortly after the fourth anniversary is the optimum time for divorce, he would tell them. Take my case, I spent the following year in purgatory, wondering just how much of it was my fault and how much was hers, wondering how right or wrong it was to keep pushing her on the subject of kids — that was the big thing with us, nothing dramatic like drugs or adultery, just the old kids-versus-career thing — and then it was like there was an express elevator inside my head, and Anne was in it, and down it went.
Yes. Down it had gone. And for the last several months, he hadn’t really thought of Anne at all... not even when the monthly alimony check was due. It was a very reasonable, very civilized amount; Anne had been making eighty thousand a year on her own before taxes. His lawyer paid it, and it was just another item on the monthly statement Brian got, a little two thousand-dollar item tucked between the electricity bill and the mortgage payment on the condo.
He watched a gangly teenaged boy with a violin case under his arm and a yarmulke on his head walk down the aisle. The boy looked both nervous and excited, his eyes full of the future. Brian envied him.
There had been a lot of bitterness and anger between the two of them during the last year of the marriage, and finally, about four months before the end, it had happened: his hand had said go before his brain could say no. He didn’t like to remember that. She’d had too much to drink at a party, and she had really torn into him when they got home.
Leave me alone about it, Brian. Just leave me alone. No more talk about kids. If you want a sperm-test, go to a doctor. My job is advertising, not baby-making. I’m so tired of all your macho bullsh—
That was when he had slapped her, hard, across the mouth. The blow had clipped the last word off with brutal neatness. They had stood looking at each other in the apartment where she would later die, both of them more shocked and frightened than they would ever admit (except maybe now, sitting here in seat 5A and watching Flight 29’S passengers come on board, he was admitting it, finally admitting it to himself). She had touched her mouth, which had started to bleed. She held out her fingers toward him.
You hit me, she said. It was not anger in her voice but wonder. He had an idea it might have been the first time anyone had ever laid an angry hand upon any part of Anne Quinlan Engle’s body.
Yes, he had said. You bet. And I’ll do it again if you don’t shut up. You’re not going to whip me with that tongue of yours anymore, sweetheart. You better put a padlock on it. I’m telling you for your own good. Those days are over. If you want something to kick around the house, buy a dog.
The marriage had crutched along for another few months, but it had really ended in that moment when Brian’s palm made brisk contact with the side of Anne’s mouth. He had been provoked — God knew he had been provoked — but he still would have given a great deal to take that one wretched second back.
As the last passengers began to trickle on board, he found himself also thinking, almost obsessively, about Anne’s perfume. He could recall its fragrance exactly, but not the name. What had it been? Lissome? Lithsome? Lithium, for God’s sake? It danced just beyond his grasp. It was maddening.
I miss her, he thought dully. Now that she’s gone forever, I miss her. Isn’t that amazing?
Lawnboy? Something stupid like that?
Oh stop it, he told his weary mind. Put a cork in it.