The early morning heat and humidity had cleared out by the time the small commuter jet pushed away from Jackson-Medgar Wiley Evers International Airport. The occupant of seat 4A, a man in a bright Hawaiian shirt, looked out the window at the puddles on the tarmac. The midday storms had been unusually intense, causing mass damage around the Jackson, Mississippi area. A large tornado had hit the Madison area, destroying a new subdivision full of expensive homes. But those storms were past now. And Steve Maxwell was finally on his way to the beach.
Flight 2316 had been delayed for 30 minutes as the mechanics wrestled with a problem with the right engine. Apparently it was fixed now — at least Steve hoped so. The door of the cabin was shut with a thump. He tightened up his seatbelt and looked around the plane, a habit he had picked up post-9/11. It always was wise to be vigilant, he thought. There was the flight attendant, up in the front of the cabin preparing the safety demonstration. She was an attractive woman, probably 50. He could see that her eyes were tired. This was probably her last flight on a really long shift. A prerecorded tape went through all the things that Steve had heard 1,000 times before. Seat cushion floatation device. Oxygen mask. Blah, blah, blah. He looked at the CloudMall magazine in the seat-back pocket and thought about ordering his mom the “Cheese of the Month.” He powered down his cellphone and said his traditional pre-flight prayer. The little plane’s engines began to whine as the plane taxied toward the runway.
The pilot came on the intercom. Steve had noticed him when he boarded the plane. The kid looked 18. ”This is your captain speaking,” he said in his best Chuck Yeager impersonation. “We’re #1 for take-off.” Steve thought, “It takes some real work to be #2 at Jackson-Medgar Wiley Evers International Airport.”
The pilot continued, “You may have noticed there are some nasty thunderstorms out there. Currently they are just past the state line. And since they are between us and Atlanta, we’re going to have to fly through them. Don’t be alarmed if we climb rapidly. I want to get us up and over them as soon as possible. Therese, there will no drink service.”
Steve thought, “No drink service? The flight is going to be rough.”
The flight from Jackson to Atlanta is usually about an hour. The little jets didn’t bother Steve that much. They were much better than the old prop jobs. They never could climb high enough to get out of the weather. The jets could.
To Steve’s right was an elderly African-American lady and her granddaughter. ”Hi. Have you ever flown before, ” he said to the little girl. He could see that she was nervous.
“No sir,” she said. Her hair had pink ribbons that matched her beautiful pink dress. “Granny and I are going to Atlanta to see the Georgia Aquarium and visit my Uncle. My name is Lenore, btw. I’m named after her.” The little girl pointed at her grandmother.
“I’m going to St. Petersburg. And then I’m going to the beach.”
“Wooo.” The little girl was impressed.
The flight attendant had secured the the cabin and strapped herself in. The little jet roared down the runway and leapt into the air. Steve looked out the window at his home. Brilliant blue sky had replaced the angry clouds of a few hours earlier.
Twenty-five minutes into the flight, Steve felt the first shake.
He awoke and looked out the window. Giant cumulonimbus clouds towered all around the plane. Some of them must have soared to over 60,000 feet. The plane shook again. And then dropped suddenly, causing the luggage compartment to pop open.
A lady in the back of the plane screamed.
The captain came on, “There is going to be some rough air ahead. Therese, secure the cabin and strap yourself in.” Steve had learned long ago not to worry unless the flight attendant was worried. Therese looked terrified.
Steve was right behind her.
The pilot was doing the best he could. The little plane weaved and dodged the weather. At one point, loud bangs rocked the plane. Hail. Great. These storms must be bad. The plane dropped again. This time, Steve nearly screamed.
And then it happened.
The right engine exploded and the cabin suddenly lost compression. As the plane went into a steep dive (into the teeth of the storm), the oxygen masks popped out of the ceiling. Steve got his on fairly quickly but the two Lenores were struggling with theirs. Steve took his mask off, unbuckled his seatbelt and helped the grandmother get hers on. He then got the mask on the little girl. Passengers were screaming loudly now, nearly as loudly as the remaining engine. The cabin was complete chaos. Steve fumbled with his mask, but felt the lack of oxygen beginning to take its toll. He was graying out. And as he got his mask back on his face, the world went black.
The sound of the landing gear woke him up.
Steve blinked and felt around. He seemed to be intact. The cabin was littered with debris, but everyone seemed to be ok. Big Lenore was holding little Lenore and the flight attendant was walking around trying to secure the cabin the best she could.
“This is the captain. Sorry about the drama back there. We have priority to land at Hartsfield-Jackson airport. I know some of you will have missed your connection. We’ll have an agent at the gate to greet you and assist you with your flights.”
Steve looked out the window. The world was unusually bright. As the little plane touched down, he noticed there weren’t many planes. The storm must have really fouled things up, he thought. As the plane pulled to the gate, the whole cabin applauded.
As they deplaned, Steve shook the captain’s hand. “Nice flying. Didn’t think you had it in you, but you did. Thank you.” The captain’s hands were unusually cold and clammy. “Probably from sweat,” Steve thought.
Steve stepped off the plane and looked at his watch. It had stopped for some reason. “Considering my heart nearly did, I don’t blame it.” He grabbed his bag and headed up the ramp. He had to get to St. Petersburg.
The gate agent was an older black man named Peter. He held a little tablet computer and greeted each frantic passenger with a smile and a pleasant, “how may I help?”
“I’ve got to get to St. Petersburg. Can I still make my connection?”
Peter looked at his tablet. “I’m sorry, that flight left long ago. If you are patient, I can get you booked on another flight or on another airline. Please wait in the waiting area and I will call you when I get something arranged.”
Steve felt his blood pressure rise, “but…”
“Patience, my friend. You’ll get to your final destination. The more you worry, the longer you’ll be here.”
Steve stomped over the seats and sat down. Hartsfield-Jackson is the world’s busiest airport, but it wasn’t today. And there was something peculiar about the people who streamed past. People almost seemed stunned. “Must be the bad weather,” Steve thought. He knew he felt that way right now.
He pulled out his phone, but it wouldn’t work. Apparently the flight had messed it up, too. So he put the phone in his pocket and looked around. There was a giant window across from his gate. The sky was dark and angry. Probably the same storms we flew through, Steve guessed. And it seemed like the people getting on that flight were aggitated. The sky out his window was that same brightness he had noticed when they had landed. It must be facing the east.
“Hey Peter, got anything yet? I’ve got to get to St. Petersburg!”
Peter looked up from helping another passenger and said, “Patience my friend. You’ll be headed to your final destination soon enough.”
An hour later, Peter came up to him and said, “I have you a flight. Last seat on the plane. And, luckily enough, it leaves from this gate. It’s on another airline, but I’ve taken care of everything for you. Even your baggage.”
Steve smiled. “Peter, you’re a good man. What’s the airline?”
Steve grimmaced. He had never heard of Eidolon Air before.”
He looked out the window. The giant jet was sitting there ready to be boarded.
“Good. I really don’t like little jets anymore.”
The gate agent behind the desk called the passengers, “Calling all rows for flight 316 to Tampa/St. Pete. on Eidolon Air.” And with great joy, Steve picked up his bag, waved at Peter and then boarded.
Peter watched as the giant jet was pushed from the gate.
The other gate agent walked up to Peter and said, ”He doesn’t know his flight crashed, does he?”
Peter sighed and said, “I guess he never heard the old joke, ‘“If you go to heaven when you die, you have to go through Hartsfield.”
Peter smiled as he watched Steve Maxwell head to his final destination.