Cloud Nine

 

Ted’s last thoughts were not the panicky, desperate thoughts he would have guessed they’d have been had anyone ever asked, but no one ever had and he found himself strangely calm as the earth grew closer by the second. There was of course that brief first moment of terror, that moment of realization that today simply wasn’t going to end the way you had planned; that moment when you scream, "Shit!" and hope that by saying it, you won’t do it.

Then there was denial. "This isn’t actually happening. I’ll wake up any second now."

But Ted knew better. He’d been on his way to a conference in Seattle. It was a relatively short flight from San Francisco and he knew he hadn’t fallen asleep. The hijacking, the deafening gun shots inside the small plane, the wind rushing against his face; this was no nightmare. This was the real McCoy.

He was not an angry soul, had always accepted things for what they are. He felt no anger towards his situation or to those who had put him in it. The world was what it was. Living in it was the risk we all take. The situation is what it is. If he could do it over again, he couldn’t imagine doing it any other way. So the anger stage was skipped altogether.

He was not a religious man so he had no God to pray to, to ask for help. He didn’t believe in miracles. Everything is what it is.

He had a pretty good idea what the result of his action was going to be before he went through with it. And even though he made up his mind to act in a split second, that was all the time he needed to know that it was the right thing to do and was worth the potential price. The hijacker had already killed two people, one of whom had undoubtedly come to the same decision but whose opportunity had vanished too quickly. Maybe he hadn’t noticed it in time. Maybe he took a second too long weighing the risk. But the hijacker had turned already pulling the trigger and a hero lay bleeding in the aisle.

The hijacker dragged the dying man by a leg with one arm towards the front of the plane, swinging his rapid-fire pistol from side to side with the other, already having displayed his willingness to shoot anyone who moved. No one did. He only had to drag him a few feet to the exit hatch. The plane was small, no first class section. It was at full passenger capacity, however, thirty-two in all. Ted was in row A, the aisle seat.

The whole event took no more than sixty seconds and it was this that was running through Ted’s mind as the wind sped past his ears, pulling his lips tight against his face. He was falling spread-eagled to slow the fall, as he had seen skydivers do on TV, not so much to delay his inevitable death by a few precious seconds, but to lessen the roar of the wind in his ears. Yet as he replayed those last sixty seconds in his mind a couple of times, knowing he had only another sixty or so left to live, he managed a strained smile against the pounding wind and couldn’t help but take note of his lack of panic.

Ten minutes after the plane had taken off from San Francisco International, the hijacker had stood up from his seat one row back and across the aisle from Ted. He quickly announced his intentions to take the plane to Mexico and showed off his gun, threatening to shoot anyone who moved. The locked door to the cockpit had opened, the co-pilot having decided (unwisely and against regulations) to see what all the commotion was about. The hijacker turned and shot him in the forehead just above his disbelieving eyes as though it had been part of the plan and started screaming orders to the pilot to turn the plane around and aim for Mexico. The man in the seat behind Ted, a young twenty-something with long blond hair tied neatly in a ponytail stretching half-way down his back, stood and charged the moment the hijacker turned his body. He must have hoped the element of surprise would be enough, but the gunman heard him coming and turned around firing. The charging man was halted in his tracks and thrown backwards as a trio of bullets opened his chest, adding new streaks of red to his green and yellow tie-dyed t-shirt.

Waving his gun wildly at the terrified passengers, the hijacker moved to the plane’s hatch and began struggling with its handle. The sole stewardess aboard had been aiding a passenger near the rear of the plane when the hijacker had first risen from his seat; now realizing the madman’s intentions, she screamed "You can’t open that!", but was too late. Ted knew he was the only one that would have the opportunity. Two wide-eyed, scared children were seated in row A opposite himself, a small divider between themselves and the hatch. He was the only one who might be able to reach the hijacker and the hatch quickly enough to avoid being shot. There had been only a split-second of time available to react and it was during that instant that Ted had seen his opportunity, weighed the consequences, and taken action.

The young man was surely a hero. Without his attempt to overtake the hijacker, Ted’s opportunity would not have arisen and who knows how many more might have died at the hand of the trigger-happy madman. And he himself was also a hero, he told himself. Although his ego had no need to be flattered, he still granted himself another smile in death’s face at the thought. He was going to die a hero. Who’d of thunk it?

Maybe the fact that he knew what he was doing when he did it is why he felt no panic, no remorse, no fear. He was only thirty-eight years old. He had plenty of years ahead of him under any other circumstance, but he felt he had lived a good life and he knew he had done the right thing. His wife and sixteen year old son would be devastated, but he had good insurance. They would be taken care of. His son would certainly understand why his father had done what he did, and pride would soon overcome the despair and anguish of the loss. His wife was still young enough to find true love again.

Reflection, he thought. How typical. He calmly tried to think of something else. Reflection might cause remorse and he didn’t want remorse tainting his moment as a hero. But death seemed to be the subject of the moment, hero or no hero, and it was hard to take his mind from it. His thoughts drifted quickly to how he was going to die, free-falling from an airplane without a parachute, and he began comparing this to other ways that he might have died. Fire, drowning, cancer, heart attack, disease, gun shot from a hijacker…all of which required a duration of pain, some not so long, some lasting for years. Ted felt no pain, doubted he would even have time to feel any pain between his sudden impact with Mother Earth and that moment when his brain would shut down and all feeling would cease. And even if he did feel the collision, how long could it last? He decided he wouldn’t be alive long enough for his brain to even register the pain once he landed and therefore concluded that if one had to choose a way to go, this would be his choice. So how could he complain?

But he hadn’t chosen to die, just as he hadn’t chosen to be heroic. He simply reacted to an emergency situation. Calmly, sanely, quickly, he chose to do what he thought was best for all. Paying no attention to the stewardess’ warning, the hijacker had thrown open the hatch to dispose of the blond man’s bleeding body. Chaos briefly filled the small plane as the hero’s body and any and all loose items in the plane were immediately sucked through the doorway and into the great beyond. A man a couple of rows back yelled, "He’s going to kill us all!" and the initial shock of the event was transformed into screaming and panic from most of the passengers. The hijacker was also briefly in a state of alarm and confusion as he grabbed for the luggage rack above the doorway barely in time to keep himself from being swept out into the sky as the plane trembled and shuddered violently with the sudden change in air pressure. Ted chose to rush the hijacker before he could get the hatch shut. Of course, ideally he had hoped to push the hijacker out, somehow get the hatch closed, and be done with it. His greatest fear in that split second while turning thought into action was of getting shot by the hijacker before he got to him. But he calculated that even if he was shot, with the small amount of space to be covered, his initial momentum would allow him success in trying to dispatch the hijacker from the plane. Also still in that instant of a second, he realized that same momentum, if he was not shot, might cause him to fly out of the plane with the hijacker.

And that turned out to be the way it went down. The hijacker had seen him coming but this time surprise had worked in favor of the home team. The hijacker’s hand on the luggage rack came free as he grabbed for Ted who was on him almost as fast as he had gotten up from his seat. Only sixty seconds after the madman had risen from his own seat and killed two people.

Ted and the hijacker had followed the dying blond man out of the plane into the sky, still locked together in a bear hug, looking like lovers seeking solace and comfort from each other as they tumbled head over heels into the high summer air. The hijacker pushed himself away and even triggered off a couple of rounds aimed at Ted but the shots sprayed harmlessly as he started spiraling away towards earth. Ted calmly spread out his arms and legs like he’d seen the skydivers do and watched the hijacker turn a few cartwheels while screaming bloody murder and squeezing off a few more aimless rounds. Looking over his shoulder back up at the small plane, he saw the hatch of the plane draw closed. Despite the fact that he was on the wrong side of the door soaring to his death, he found himself pleased with the result of his actions, sure that he had done the right thing even in the face of the consequences. Already some fifty yards closer to the earth in his out of control somersault, Ted watched the madman turn the gun on himself and make his final kill. The cartwheel sped up with its dead weight, the flying limbs became a blur, and Ted erased the man and the image from his mind. He had more important things to think about in his final minute.

The view, for example, was one few people will ever see. Puffy white clouds were scattered about looking like huge cotton pillows shading large sections of the earth below. The sun felt warm and comforting on his back. The consistent drone of the wind had become soothing like a familiar mantra. Truly there was no better way to die than falling from a plane.

Remembering the skydiving program he had seen on TV, he tried to aim for the largest of the clouds still below him and a little off to the right. Ted dipped his right arm, shoulder, and head towards the cloud, imagining he was Superman with his cape flailing in the air. Another experience few people would get the opportunity to enjoy, flying through a cloud like a bird, like Superman, actually feeling the moisture as it slowly gathers in anticipation of becoming rain. The thought excited him and he dipped his head a little more, speeding up his descent towards the cloud.

As he entered the massive cloud three seconds later, the temperature noticeably dropped and chilled his skin. His vision was suddenly limited and his depth perception could not be trusted inside the dense, puffy, white mist. He found it impossible to determine if he was seeing inches, feet, or even miles in front of him. As he fought the force of the onrushing wind to wipe the moisture from his brow, he thought he caught movement from his left, just on the edge of his peripheral vision, turned his head that direction, and saw nothing. He hoped a plane wouldn’t be passing through the cloud at that particular moment. That wasn’t part of the deal here. He had already accepted his means of demise and had no desire to be splattered on a windshield like a bug on the highway. Even if the plane only grazed him, it would definitely be painful, he decided, and the rest of this wondrous last flight would be ruined.

Seconds passed and he was still immersed in the wet, white oasis of the sky, but the wind in his ears had quieted a bit. The sun no longer warmed his back and the whiteness had turned to a dull gray. He felt exhilarated, even privileged, to be allowed to spend a few of his final seconds viewing firsthand what most people could only dream about. His only regret was the realization that he would be exiting the cloud before he had time to explore it.

More seconds passed. He was still in the cloud, and once again he was sure he caught movement on his left, turned his head, and saw nothing but more gray cloud. Shouldn’t he be exiting the cloud by now, he thought? He was no expert; he had no idea how deep clouds actually were from his life of casual observation from the ground. He had no idea how fast one travels through the air when free-falling from a plane and he could only guess at the number of seconds it would take to impact the earth. But he had been in this cloud for, what, ten seconds now? Fifteen? Or maybe it was only two or three and his own mind had slowed time for him so that he could better enjoy his final descent. He knew the mind did some pretty amazing stuff when under stress. But he felt no stress. He had immediately accepted his situation for what it was.

But still, the cloud continued.

Maybe, he reasoned, he had hit a cloud that extended all the way to the ground. Maybe this cloud was a ground level fog. He may not even see the ground coming. He wouldn’t even know when he was going to hit the earth. He wouldn’t even know he was dead.

Maybe that was it, he thought, still soaring through the cloud. He was already dead. He had splattered into the earth and his brain hadn’t been able to register the impact so it clung to its last memory, the cloud, and would forever be replaying that final memory with no new stimuli ever capable of intervening.

That had to be it. He was going on half a minute now encased in the moist, chilled cloud. One didn’t have to be a scientist or a physicist to know this was not right. Even if the cloud did lay on the earth as a large, bothersome fog bank, he felt he should have reached his destination by now and he thought it ironic that his first worry since exiting the plane with the hijacker was that he wasn’t dead yet. He had heard somewhere that most people, when free-falling from a plane without a parachute, die of a heart-attack before ever reaching the earth. He knew he had not had a heart-attack. He could feel his heart beating in his chest, certainly a little harder and faster than normal, but it was definitely still beating.

And still the fall, the cloud, the heartbeat, continued.

Ted slid his tongue between his teeth and bit down, letting up on the bite immediately when his tongue complained of the pain. No, he was definitely not dead yet. He could still feel pain. His heart was still beating. And the wind still roared in his ears. Roared? Not exactly the roar it had been when he had approached the cloud. Now it was more like riding a motorcycle into the wind without a helmet. Apparently clouds blocked out more than just the sun. The atmosphere within seemed a little thinner, as well. Just as many animals on earth can change their color or even their shape to protect themselves from predators, maybe a cloud somehow protects itself from the wind.

Another five, ten, fifteen seconds passed. Another movement, this time to his right. Glancing that way he thought he saw a face but it was gone the moment he focused in that direction. He remembered how when young, he and his little brother would lay in the grass in the backyard looking up at the clouds announcing all the shapes they saw them form. A boat, a hand, a duck. They’d watch as a cloud-horse would morph into a cloud-castle complete with a little cloud-moat floating at its base and "ooohh" and "aaahh" as they noticed what the other had pointed out. On a few occasions, Ted claimed to see faces in the cloud formations, watching down on them as they watched up. He thought that would be cool and he imagined a couple of cloud-people, brothers like he and Greg, lying up there on their cloud-pillow, gazing down at the earth, naming the shapes they saw passing beneath them. Little Greg thought that was creepy, but he also still believed in the boogeyman. Ted, being the caring and understanding big brother that he was even at the age of seven, would then always renounce his discovery and claim, "It’s gone. Now it looks like a duck." But that wasn’t always the case. Sometimes the faces lingered. Sometimes while other clouds were constantly morphing in and out of new shapes, Ted thought the faces continued to watch.

Wiping the condensation from his brow again, using noticeably less effort against the wind, Ted definitely saw movement this time. It was below him, slightly off to the left but directly in his line of vision. The clouds, it seemed, formed as many shapes on the inside as they appeared to on the outside when gazing up at them from the ground. But from here, their shapes were formed with shades of white on gray instead of using the blue sky as its canvas. What first appeared to be swirling little mists of gray cloud formed a perfect circle with a defined edge in its different shades of gray and white. The circle stretched into an oval and four more circles appeared within the first. The oval was expanding, or Ted was simply getting closer causing it to appear to grow in size, he wasn’t sure which, but the smaller circles in their own shades of gray also began to take individual form. Ted watched in fascination, almost forgetting that he was in the process of plummeting to his death, as the cloudy forms within the cloud took on the shape of a face. The eyes of the cloud-face appeared to be looking at him, studying him with the same fascination that he was studying it. A puffy off-white beard formed at its chin giving the face an aged look. It reminded Ted of a stone carving of Zeus he had seen when studying Greek mythology in college.

Movement again to his right distracted his attention from the cloud-carving of Zeus. Snapping his head in that direction, what looked like a giant hand appeared to be coming at him. It looked as though it were half a clap and Ted briefly thought if he looked the other direction he would see the other half of the clap closing in on him, the two hands preparing to squash him like a bothersome gnat hovering over one’s food at a picnic in the park. The wind suddenly seemed to shift miraculously, coming at him from the right where the approaching hand was as much as it was coming up at him from the ground. It felt like a gentle push.

The feeling of being pushed vanished as quickly as it had started and the hand appeared to dissipate back into random slices of swirling gray mist. Returning his gaze below, thinking that any second the earth would appear and he could begin the countdown to his contact with the ground, hoping he would not land in a busy mall parking lot or the infield of a little league baseball game in progress, he noticed that the gentle push the cloud-hand had given him aligned him directly above the cloud-carving of Zeus. The face had grown large without losing its shape, as large as a small house. The eyes had grown so distinct and intense that they almost looked intelligent. The mouth was now agape and beyond its gray lips appeared to be blackness darker than the darkest storm cloud he had ever seen.

Instinctively, Ted dipped his left shoulder and arm, not wanting to fall through the mouth and into the blackness, but the face seemed to stay with him, directly in his path. Two seconds later, Ted was swallowed by the blackness.

* * * * *

Ted’s mind woke up before his eyes did. His eyes still felt glued shut by the Sandman and he couldn’t immediately open them. Suddenly he remembered that he had never expected to be opening them again in the first place. He remembered the plane, the hijacker, and flying through the air like Superman. He remembered the gunman cartwheeling through the air before him after turning his own gun on himself, and he remembered entering the cloud. After that, he wasn’t sure. He vaguely remembered being surprised by seeing shapes form inside the cloud much like they do when observed from the ground, and the feeling of being watched, but that was where his memory got a little foggy. He should be dead. That much he was sure of. The idea that he was thinking about trying to open his eyes, that he was consciously thinking about anything at all, just didn’t make any sense. Dead men don’t think, he thought.

Using all his willpower against the Sandman, he tried again to force his eyes open and for the briefest moment succeeded, but the brightness forced them shut again before he could register anything but white. He had died, he decided. He must be in Heaven. Of course, he had never believed in Heaven but it seemed the only answer. People simply don’t wake up after free-falling from a plane without a parachute.

And what was he lying on? He felt nothing, not a soft mattress, not even the hard ground or a floor. He assumed he was lying down but only because he was just gaining consciousness like one does when waking from a long sleep. His arms and legs felt slightly stiff but movable and he moved one of his arms to determine what his bed was made of. He felt nothing.

Some wind tousled his hair and chilled his skin. He was outside, he thought. Wanting desperately to open his eyes, to assess his current situation, he brought both stiff arms to his face and shielded his closed eyes like a child counting to twenty in a game of Hide and Seek before trying to open them again against the brightness that had instantly slammed them shut on his first attempt. His fingers glowed with a red outline from the brightness that lay behind them, but at least his eyes were now open. Slowly, little by little, he spread his fingers enough to let in some of the light. It stung his eyes but they remained open this time as the pupils slowly adjusted to the brightness. Still all Ted could see, however, was slits of whiteness behind his glowing fingers.

The hospital, Ted thought. They were always a sanitary white. White walls, white ceilings, white sheets, white light. Maybe he was suspended in the air after breaking every bone in his body from the fall. But that would mean he had survived his fall and he didn’t understand how that could be possible. Yet here he was, thinking, a little sore (but not the type of sore one would expect after breaking every bone in one’s body), holding his hands in front of his face. He certainly felt alive despite its impossibility.

Two long minutes passed before he was able to completely remove his hands from his face to confirm what his racing mind thought he was seeing from between the gaps of his fingers. Swirling mists of cloud. He was still alive, had not gone crashing into the earth but had been caught somehow by the cloud itself. Below, above, to the right, and to the left, all he could see was gray and white swirling cloud. He felt like he was standing up, too, not lying down as he had first assumed, yet he felt no floor beneath his feet. He must be dreaming, he thought. But he knew he wasn’t dreaming. It was merely the only explanation his mind could generate.

Before him, the mist seemed to be moving as though with purpose. A moment later he was peering at what looked like a pencil sketching of a cloud-staircase. The steps were white, the risers in shades of gray. At the top of the stairs appeared another face, not as large as the one that had swallowed him whole, without the gray lips and the gaping stormy mouth, but with the same intense, intelligent looking eyes. And the eyes were trained on him.

He felt a gentle wind touch his backside, coaxing him to move forward and he tentatively tested the first of the cloud-steps. It seemed to hold his weight though he still felt no surface beneath his foot. Ted climbed two more of the twelve steps of the cloud-staircase. Looking up, the face was gone and he quickly, but still very vigilantly, climbed the remaining steps.

Ted stood on the top step for a moment trying to make sense of what he was looking at. Colors, shapes, recognizable items obviously not formed by the cloud’s movements and shades of blandness appeared before him in a small room with no walls, no ceiling, and seemingly no floor. It took a moment for his brain to register what lay before him.

It was a treasure room. But these were not the treasures of a king or a pirate. These were the treasures of a miser, a collector, someone who couldn’t bear to part with anything once obtained. There were books, articles of clothing, watches, eyeglasses, and suitcases. There were cardboard boxes and mail that looked ready for delivery, unopened. And a parachute.

Forgetting to be careful where he stepped, Ted moved towards the parachute but could see the gaping holes and ragged rips even before he reached it. He moved to the suitcases and began opening them, thinking he might find a sewing kit, could sew up the rips, repair the holes with some of the clothing that littered the small room, but found nothing that could do the job required. Inside one of the cardboard boxes he found some cheese and bread, but the cheese had long since turned to mold and the bread was too hard to break. Another box contained six bottles of wine and though he was not one that had ever enjoyed the drink, he did find a bottle opener and drained a third of one of the bottles in one tilt, if for no other reason than to prove to himself that he could taste it, that he was still alive.

Feeling a little woozy from the long gulp, Ted sat down on the floor that he could neither see nor feel and leaned against one of the larger suitcases. To his right were a black duffel bag and a tan briefcase, the final two items of the small treasure room that he hadn’t yet opened. He pulled the briefcase to his side and looked at it, knowing that most businessmen didn’t carry sewing kits in their attaché cases. He opened the case. He had never seen a bomb before, but he recognized the red cylinders and wires for what they were and quickly closed the case again. On the top, just below the handle, he read the name, Daniel Cooper. He carefully put aside the briefcase and pulled the black duffel bag that had been next to it onto his lap and unzipped it. Money. Lots of money. Hundreds of hundred dollar bills banded neatly in bundles.

Maybe it was the wine. Maybe it was the realization of his position, where he was, what he was looking at, but Ted suddenly started laughing uncontrollably and couldn’t stop laughing until his stomach hurt and his cheeks were streaked with tears. The cloud-face reappeared before him, the distance between them unclear, but the eyes seemed to be laughing right along with him. He decided he liked Mr. Cloud-Face. He thought they might even become friends.

* * * * *

Jim said good-bye to his teary-eyed mother and headed out to his car with his last suitcase. He had told her he could put off college for a year or two. He didn’t want to leave her alone in the big house. But she insisted that this was his chance to expand his horizons, his turn to explore life and create a future for himself and she could never forgive herself if he put it off for her benefit and something ever happened to prevent him of this opportunity. She assured him that she would be fine, that she had lots of friends to keep her mind busy and time occupied. So he went.

It was a beautiful, late summer San Francisco day, a clear blue sky containing only a single large, white, puffy cloud. Jim had spent much of the last two years gazing into the sky. His father’s body was the only one of the three that had never been found and he often wondered if it had returned to the earth at all. As Jim closed the hatch of his beat-up Omni, he glanced up at the solitary cloud and for a moment thought he saw a familiar face looking down at him, watching him. He smiled, tentatively gave the cloud a slight wave, and then, feeling a little foolish, quickly climbed into the car and headed for college.

* * * * *


Friday
August 18, 2017

Read a Book



HorizonRoad
Site Navigation


Front Desk

JuCLuCee

As Fate Would Have It

The Master Plan

It’s Only a Dream

Satan’s Tooth

Billy

Cloud Nine

The Ear

Credits and Thanks