“Well, the plane’s ready.”
At that moment, Nathaniel Chamberlain instantly recognized the error in his decision, four years ago, to study social anthropology at the University of Edinburgh. The problem lied not with the university itself, but in the field of study he had chosen. Social anthropology? He had managed to confuse and ward off every woman he’d met at nearly every bar he’d ventured into.
“Yeah, I’ll be there in a minute,” Nathaniel replied, drowning in his despondence.
The crewman nodded. He stepped closer to Nathaniel, who was able to get a better view of the man’s gray beard, which resembled a snowcapped forest, and the trench-like wrinkles snaking down his drooping cheeks. “It leaves in a minute, with or without you.” He walked away, his boots making uncomfortably loud thumps on the hangar floor.
The whir of the airplane’s rotors was discomforting. Nathaniel had never flown in a two-rotor cargo plane before – much less been the sole passenger on board a flying hunk of metal. Apart from the pilot, and six-thousand pounds of industrial-grade iron beams, he would be the only thing inside the rickety old contraption. It was an unsettling sight – some of the plane’s metal was red from rusting, and the cockpit seats were so tattered and old that Nathaniel had to find a place for himself among the cargo. As he stepped inside the holding area, where he’d be sitting, he also noticed the thinness of the straps holding the beams in place. He gave a slight tug to one of the straps and recoiled from the booming groan he heard.
“Don’t touch that!” the crewman shouted from his station. “It can be a little – er – delicate.”
Nathaniel sighed. Delicately strapped iron beams two feet away. Just what he wanted. Closing his eyes, he forced himself forward into his seat.
The takeoff was the most horrifying experience of his life. The plane was so vehemently unstable that the wings would rhythmically alternate in their flapping. In utter terror, Nathaniel watched as the metal on the wings screeched and clashed. He could’ve sworn he saw pieces of metal fly out behind the plane as it soared into the clouds. His pay was so low as a teacher’s assistant that he could only afford to hitch a ride on a transport plane, not even on a legitimate passenger flight.
At least the cargo area was pressurized. Or so he thought. Six times in a span of three hours, Nathaniel was forced to don one of the emergency breathing masks because the cabin lost pressure. His heart was pounding incessantly, like a chimpanzee banging a drum.
Finally, as the plane reached a certain altitude, the flying beast stabilized. Its wings, still flailing, stopped making thrashing noises, and Nathaniel, who had spent much of the past week studying the archaeological digs he was about to visit, nodded off to sleep. The Celts better be worth it, he mumbled before entering a fright-induced slumber.
Nathaniel’s sleep was interrupted by a floating sensation. Groggily, he opened his eyes, convinced he was in a dream – when he woke up, his head was barely two feet from the ceiling. He shrieked, and stretched his arms about, trying to find some physical stability. His stomach lurched into his neck, and he struggled to breathe. Sweat droplets trickled down his nose, and instead of dropping further, gently danced into the air around him, creating dazzling arrangements in the manner of snowflakes. For a moment, Nathaniel was seized by the dizzying display in front of him.
Then his body was flung violently backwards, back into his seat. Disoriented, Nathaniel peered through the solitary window on his outdated plane, and saw the sun, which was hugging the horizon, descend rapidly. Swarms of clouds were rising at a quick pace, and the whir of air passing the plane intensified. Eventually, it got to a point where Nathaniel couldn’t hear himself think. He could feel his skin stretch in a deeply unnatural fashion.
The plane was in free fall. What the hell was the pilot doing? His body parallel to the floor, Nathaniel forced himself forward, climbing the iron beams and scattered seats like a rock climber. He struggled to stop himself from my tumbling into a beam. Gravity pulled on his body, like a scorned wife seeking revenge, and he was barely able to stabilize himself. Using the muscles crafted by years of competitive rowing, he pulled himself toward the cockpit as carefully as he could.
Before Nathaniel could knock, or even pull the door handle, the metal door swung upon violently. A gush of air, resulting from the differing pressure environments, poured out, and Nathaniel was barely able to hold on to the beam in front of him. He was gripping the beam so tightly that his fingers were white, and shooting pain flooded through the muscles in his arms.
With one large gulp of air, Nathaniel leapt forward and tumbled into the cockpit. He had fallen so hard that his rear-end nearly broke through the plane’s windshield. Dazed, and his head searing from the impact, Nathaniel glanced around, his eyes struggling to make sense of the variegated gears, switches, buttons, and levers in the cockpit. Finally, they found what he was looking for – the pilot’s seat.
His mind registered the black tattered and scratched leather of the seat, the little creases formed by the pilot’s buttocks. A foam cup, with splashed coffee soaking through the material, was on the seat. Assessing his environment, Nathaniel gradually discovered an oddity – amid the sea of plastic color in the cockpit, where was the pilot?
Where was the pilot?
Nathaniel’s eyes widened. In sudden terror, his neck jerked upwards and he dry-heaved.
Where was the pilot?
Nathaniel, paralyzed with fear, barely managed to turn his neck to the right. He glanced out through the windshield. The clouds began to fade away as the plane cut through their dusty thickness. He could make out residential complexes, farms, buildings.
It was easily the most horrifying thing Nathaniel had ever seen in his life. His lungs stopped operating completely. He gasped air in so intensely that his body felt like it was going to implode from the internal and external pressure. He could make out lights. Trees. Cars. Homes. Rivers.
Instinctively, he shoved himself into the pilot’s seat and pulled the central lever between his seat and the empty space that once belonged to the co-pilot’s seat. Nothing. He jammed it back as hard as he could. Nothing. With one last forceful pull, the wires ruptured, and the lever fell out, with a clank. Nathaniel stared at the bundle of metal chunks in his right hand. He peered out the window. The repetitive beeps of the emergency free fall indicator began to chime. “Pull up. Pull up. Pull up…” the alert signal beeped.
Suddenly, Nathaniel began to notice a slow sweeping noise that shrouded out all the others. It was a cranky whir, like the croak of an old witch, and began to envelope his mind. He couldn’t tell what it was. He searched around him, trying to regain his sense of orientation amidst the ambient commotion. Then it dawned on him.
He turned around and looked behind him – the amorphous blackness of an unhinged iron beam was skidding forward. Immediately, he turned his head around, and felt the incomprehensible vibrations of the beam’s impact with the cockpit ripple through his body. The beam smashed straight through the controls and through the windshield, right out the glass paneling.
The raging torrent of air swept Nathaniel into the cracked glass. His belt was flung off. Small particles entered his skin and caused bleeding cuts to emerge on his arms and torso. Unable to make sense of the tornado before him, he once again looked through the window. Like a theatrical performance, the scene unraveled before him, like the last visions of quotidian life lingering in the mind of a prisoner on death row.
Then people. Families.
Girlfriends hugging their boyfriends, planting kisses on their cheeks.
Mothers cradling their babies, caressing their squishy, soft cheeks.
Dog-walkers smilingly untangling the maze of leashes created by overexcited golden retrievers.
Policemen whistling during their patrols. Office workers ambling after a long day.
The white lines of traffic paint dotting the roadways.
The bright eyes of one stricken little girl, her blonde hair flapping in the wind, staring up at Nathaniel. Their eyes, for one solitary second, locked in a mutual understanding. There was nothing Nathaniel could do. Nothing she could do. She clenched her doll, tightly, her knuckles suffocating the poor animal’s abdomen. Her pink lips pursed together – but a tiny, high-pitched scream managed to elude their impenetrable guard.
Her black-haired mother tried to shield her, in vain. Nathaniel could make out the mass of purple, no doubt from a half-off sweater deemed “fashionable” by the mother’s poor taste, shrouding out his view of the little girl.
And down went the plane, a blazing fireball, an airborne inferno. Nathaniel didn’t know why he was there. Why he was chosen. Why he was the one. To carry out the orders of God. God and God only.
In the lingering last moment of life, Nathaniel grinned. Social anthropology? Bad idea – and he finally knew it. Mothers are always right, he noted.
A sense of glee overcame him. A catharsis, a meddling concoction of achievement and joy flowed through his veins, in the fashion of a torrential tsunami, wiping away his formal self. The surface. Destroying the side of Nathaniel that read and learned and studied. A maniacal smile took over his face.
The mother, who had mistimed her dive miserably and fell past her daughter, revealed her daughter again. This time, the girl could not reciprocate the innocence of Nathaniel’s countenance. Her scream intensified, grew, and amplified, like the bleeding of a patient suffering from leukemia. She was truly fearful.
Nathaniel began counting the number of souls below him, ten feet away from the nose of his bellowing plane. Twenty-three, he thought, disappointingly.
I was shooting for thirty.
After all, there’s a reason I took social anthropology – to study humans. Their desires. Their intentions. Their inner workings. And, when the times, why they fall. Why the tumble. Why civilizations crumble. Why the die.
There are few set answers in my field of study – but I sure as hell can answer that last one.