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Authors: Rafael Yglesias

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BOOK: Fearless
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Rafael Yglesias

For Jules & Charlotte

The author wishes to thank Kenneth Platzer
for explaining, not impersonating,
the lawyers in this novel.


































Max lived scared, always alert to the threat of disaster, and yet when disaster finally arrived he was relaxed.

Relaxed because takeoff from Newark airport had been smooth. Of course during the ascent he had been afraid. He had concentrated on the plane’s progress, clutching the armrests while it made the wrong-way climb up the slide, convinced if he let go the jet would fall. He stayed worried until a chime alerted passengers that the seat-belt sign was off and they could move about the cabin. He knew that also meant they were successfully airborne and clear of competitive traffic and he could feel pleasure again.

Until descent.

Thanks to his morbid study of air disasters he allowed himself to be panicked only during takeoff and landing. That psychological bargain was the best he could do to master his dread of flying. And it worked. During the cruising time of a trip, while the aircraft was level, Max was even capable of joy, convinced by the statistics that he was safe.

But he wasn’t safe. Forty-two minutes into the air (Max glanced at his watch immediately) there was a boom. A dulled and yet definite explosion. It was a punishment, Max felt, for the brief minutes of comfort and security he had recklessly allowed himself.

The luggage compartments above rattled. A wheezing, metallic moan vibrated underneath the hollow carpet. The steady background noise of power altered ominously. Taking advantage of the view from his center seat, Max checked each wing’s engine. They looked okay, but that was no solace since he could hear the loss of power came from behind. The engine mounted on the tail was quiet and Max knew it was the one to worry about, the turbine that had fallen off a DC-10 out of Chicago and killed a planeload. Long ago the original design had been exposed as defective. Supposedly the flaw had been corrected, except in third world countries whom the manufacturer had failed to notify. But after all, Max thought, this flight was to LA, not Beirut.

“Oh my God,” a woman two rows up said softly. Partway out of her seat, turned to head for the lavatory, she had been nudged across the aisle into the row right in front of Max. She looked horrified.

“What the hell was that?” Max demanded of his companion.

Jeff didn’t reply. Max had a view of his profile. Max expected impatient reassurance from Jeff. Something along the lines of: “Calm down. It’s turbulence.” Instead Jeff was pale and managed only a stiff, slight side-to-side motion.

“I’d better sit down,” the woman said at Max, but she was really speaking to herself. As she attempted to move, there was another, even louder boom.

This time there were a few shrieks when it happened. He thought they were human, but they could have been cries from the craft itself.

For one strange blessed moment there was no consequence.

And then they fell. The floor seemed to drop away and they were following it down. Max arched up against his seat belt as if he could hold up the plane by himself. He saw a businessman, three aisles ahead on the left, open his mouth wide. The man was dressed coolly in a seersucker suit. Since takeoff he had held a
Wall Street Journal
before him, folded into a tall column of print, like a soldier carrying a banner into battle. He continued to fly this flag during the free-fall, although he also appeared to be screaming. Max couldn’t be sure since all interior sound was muted by the straining noise of the wing engines. A flight attendant came hurtling through the first-class curtain and dropped onto the cabin floor. Immediately after her the metal food cart rolled out and whacked her in the head.

“He’s lost an engine!” Max yelled at Jeff. There was blame in his tone.

Jeff’s long face and lazy eyes usually gave off an impression of boredom. Not now. His cheeks were sucked in, his lips were disappearing. He squinted toward the front and nervously denied the charge, shaking his head no.

“We’re going down!” Max shouted, but they weren’t. They were flying sideways. Tray tables on the left-hand aisle popped open. The sky slid away through the porthole windows and Max saw the thin land, flattened by the height of their view, not below him where it should be but directly to his left. They were upended. Still they weren’t going down, not yet. They were rolling, the same as in the Chicago crash. That jet had lost the rear engine and rolled and rolled until it was utterly destroyed.

Aware of the DC-10’s history of death, Max had boarded this one only after losing a fight against doing so. Max, as usual, had been careful to phone ahead to find out what model plane was scheduled. He had been told their flight was on an L-1011. At the check-in counter (always making sure, always cautious) he casually asked again and was terrified the instant the agent said that the equipment for their flight had been changed from the safe L-1011 to this, the DC-10 deathtrap. Pulling at Jeff’s arm and whispering shyly, like a little kid coaxing a parent, Max argued to Jeff that they should wait for a later flight.

Jeff lost his temper, shouting at him in front of the amused airline agent. “We’re grown-ups for Chrissake! We can’t call Nutty Nick and say we’re not going to make the meeting because we’re scared to fly! Look!” he almost spat into Max’s face. Max had never seen him so pissed off. “Your life isn’t so great anyway.” Jeff smiled sickeningly at this joke.

Now that they were spinning down toward the fatal earth, Max longed to say, “I told you so,” but he couldn’t talk. He was pinned against his seat by the plane’s roll, unable to turn Jeff’s way. My face is going to hit the ground at six hundred miles an hour, he believed, and received a vivid image of his features smashed flat into a Halloween mask. He saw his teeth covered with blood, displayed on the ground without the rest of him. He wondered about an old terror from childhood: does the guillotined man see his headless body from the basket?

I’m dying, he screamed into the onrushing river of terror in his brain, drowning all other thoughts. His muscles went into spasm. The sun flooded his vision, the plastic ceiling opened, and he was in the sky. He saw white everywhere. He had let go: he was free of life.

No he wasn’t. With a nauseating jerk the plane leveled. And then Max heard his own voice speaking, in a muffled tone captured within his stuffed and popping ears. “Where the fuck are we? Where the fuck are we?” he begged Jeff.

“In the air! In the air!” Jeff answered him.

Max smelled bowel movements, urine. He opened his eyes, only then realizing they had been shut. What he saw first was the flight attendant crawling down the aisle, reaching for armrests, but having a hard time getting a hold. The right side of her face was covered with thin and runny blood that almost looked fake. The rest of her still had the dry-cleaned stiffness and perfection of her job’s uniform. Jeff was seated on the aisle right next to her.

“Help her,” Max nudged him. As he made the gesture liquid seemed to spill out of his ears, and they opened up: sounds came into his head at a higher volume.

Above him a little voice squawked. “This is the captain,” it said and then something else. His tone was calm, but the electronics were not: they squeezed and garbled his voice. “…a loss of power. We’re going…”

“What did he say!” Jeff’s fingers, rigid and arched into a claw shape, dropped over Max’s wrist. He seemed unaware of the bleeding flight attendant at his feet.

The woman passenger who had been out of her seat when the two explosions happened appeared, rising over the headrests. She had been thrown into the row in front of them; it was empty and she seemed unhurt.

Max heard children crying. The flight was loaded with kids. “A good sign,” Jeff had said as they boarded. After Max caved in about taking the DC-10, Jeff did his best to reassure him. “Planes with kids on them don’t crash,” he whispered. There were a lot of children, but one of the flight attendants explained why and it had nothing to do with guaranteeing Max’s safety. To fill its seats off-peak the airline discounted their tickets seventy-five percent for children flying on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. Some were very young—four, five, six. Max had seen at least three pairs of siblings traveling without parents and he had noticed one child, a towheaded boy, going it totally alone.

Max had flown alone as a child. His parents put him on a plane (for the first time when he was six) to visit his maternal grandparents in California at Christmas and for two weeks every summer. A shrink had told him that the fear he repressed then, pressured by his parents to pretend he enjoyed the experience, was forever resurfacing now that he was an adult. At first Max had been in love with this theory; but its uselessness (the next time he flew his terror was keener) eventually caused him to lose faith in it. Just last week Max had offered his own explanation to the doctor: “The simple truth is: I’m a coward.”

The towheaded boy seated alone three rows up had sat through boarding in a very grown-up, dignified, slightly shy and sad manner. Max used to put on a similar behavioral disguise when he had to travel as a child to California: he was concealing fear. Max wondered whether the boy was injured by the plane’s roll to the left. But the noise of crying children wasn’t coming from up ahead where the boy sat, it originated from behind Max. He freed himself of the handcuff Jeff’s fingers had made around his wrist and unbuckled his seat belt.

“Help her,” he ordered Jeff, pointing to the flight attendant, who was still unable to get off her knees. Twice she had reached for the top of the seats, gotten hold, risen slightly, only to have her legs give out. She seemed to be in shock: her pupils were big and she didn’t react to the blood running down the side of her face.

Jeff’s face had calmed, but his arms and hands were rigid. “I can’t move,” he said.

The bad smell, at least some of it, came from Jeff’s pants. Max, out of his seat by now, touched his rear to make sure that his skin had correctly informed him that he hadn’t crapped. He hadn’t. He was glad—and then disgusted by Jeff. “Clean yourself up!” he shouted and breathed through his mouth. He reached over and took hold of the flight attendant’s hand—

The little world of the plane in which they were trapped, wobbled and bobbed and then…dropped.

“God!” Jeff shouted. Max stumbled into Jeff’s lap and imagined he was falling into shit. The flight attendant lost her grip again and flopped over like a Raggedy Ann doll into the narrow river of blue carpet.

Engines fought the air. Max pushed himself up from Jeff. He was facing backwards. He looked at the rows and saw mostly little faces and young parents, younger than he. On every one there was frozen the terror of imminent death.

This is it

Max was forty-two. He announced his age to himself, paused to consider how the fact of his death would read in the paper, and felt surprised. Not at dying so young, but to have lived so long and feel that he hadn’t really done anything.

The plane found a ramp in the air and swooped up it, leveling. They were much lower, perhaps no more than ten thousand feet off the ground; Max didn’t know, he was guessing. He noticed that the right wing dipped and then rose abruptly, without the usual smooth sway. Instead the plane jerked like a drunkard stumbling on his way home, landing heavily on each foot, threatening to topple over, rescued only by an equally precarious tilt the opposite way. Max peered at the wings and saw the flaps were up. They had been in that position before the roll, and after it, and again before the sudden drop. They hadn’t moved. Their immobility probably wasn’t a choice made by the captain; more likely he had no control over them. If so, Max knew that meant they would eventually crash. He had read about the safety backups: everything was supposedly designed to prevent such a catastrophic failure. If somehow the impossible had occurred and the captain couldn’t steer, then they were doomed.

BOOK: Fearless
11Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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