Friday, October 1, 2010

Ghost Plane

For those who wonder what goes on at an airport at night. (Previously published by CrimeSpree.)

Ghost Plane

She preferred the airport at night after all the passengers had gone. Preferred the quiet.
Out here on the high plateau wind swept away the jet fuel and brought the pungent scent of sage. A tumbleweed, spindly and skeletal, cart-wheeled across the tarmac. Miles away in town lights twinkled against a backdrop of the moonlit Rocky Mountains.

Carrying her bucket of paper towels and Lysol, she trudged back inside the terminal.
It was her job to clean the planes, empty out the seat pockets, vacuum popcorn off the floor, dump the lav--jobs the day crew shunned. Tonight she was the last to leave, but she didn’t mind the closing shift. Since the divorce no one waited for her back at home.

Computers glowed along the ticket counter. Fly High. Fly High. Fly High. Purple letters floating in a sea of stars as the screensavers kicked on.

“G’night Chuck,” she called out to the maintenance man.

He didn’t seem to hear her; no nod of his cowboy hat, just kept walking down the terminal past the car rentals.

He paused to check the automatic sliding doors, making sure that they were locked. Small town, small airport. Come midnight everything shut down. When he reached the bag belt at the far end of the lobby he switched off the lights.

“Leave ’em on, Chuck. I’m still here.”

She hated when men did that--pretended not to hear you, ignored you like you were invisible. Her ex had been like that.

The door clicked behind him and he headed for his truck.

She ran down the terminal calling, “Wait!”

Through the glass doors she saw a gray plume of exhaust, red eyes of the taillights growing fainter in the dark.

She snapped the light switch on and nothing happened. She had no idea where to find the breaker. Walking back through the terminal she searched the gloom for familiar shapes--a potted palm, cushioned benches, unlit signs of Avis, Hertz, Budget. Behind the ticket counter, she fumbled for the doorknob, pushed open the door leading to the SIDA area where a badge was required.

The garage stunk of diesel. The electricity was working. A single bulb swung from the ceiling, casting shadows on the floor.

Her footsteps echoed on the concrete as she hurried to her locker. Soon she would be home, putting up her feet, watching television.

The radio kicked on in operations. A staticky, “Durango do you copy?”

No aircraft should be calling in. The last plane had arrived an hour ago.

She skirted an empty bag cart, squeezed past the Ground Power Unit--the GPU’s heavy electrical cord snaked across the floor and nearly tripped her. Fighting to maintain her balance, she scrambled to the radio.

She depressed the button, spoke into the microphone, “This is Durango ops.”

“In range,” the radio crackled.

She turned up the volume. “What flight is this?”

“Emergency landing...” More crackling.

“Durango ops,” she shouted into the mike, “do you copy?”

No answer.

Opening the door, she peered out at the ramp. Planes perched on the tarmac like great winged beasts, and the crane of the deicing truck loomed like a dinosaur. A string of blue lights glimmered along the runway.

A plane would be landing soon.

She grabbed the telephone, punched in the numbers for dispatch. Waded through prompts, punched in more numbers. The phone rang and rang and rang.

She slammed down the receiver, hurried to the emergency radio, and tried to reach the fire station.

“Anybody there? Pick-up!”

Gone for the night.

Roaring engines of a plane sent her running to the garage door. She pressed the button and the metal door rumbled open. She hooked the GPU to a tug, jumped into the driver’s seat and revved the engine then tore out to the ramp.

Across the runway a coyote howled.

The Navajo say coyote is a trickster.

Sweat prickled on her brow as she veered across the tarmac, palms slick against the steering wheel. She hit the brakes and jumped off the tug. A white prop-jet barreled down the runway. No insignia to indicate the carrier. She held up the lighted wands guiding the aircraft to its parking place then chocked the front wheels.

The engines powered down, propellers slowing to a stop. She unclipped the side panel, plugged in the GPU, and felt a disconcerting jolt as power surged into the plane. A faulty cord was dangerous and she’d have to report it, but the cabin lights flickered on so she gave the thumbs-up sign. Thought it odd she saw no pilot in the cockpit.

The plane’s door opened like a gapping mouth. She stood at the bottom of the stairs waiting for passengers, but none appeared.

“Hello,” she called and climbed the narrow steps into the plane.

She glanced down the cabin’s aisle, saw thirty-seven empty seats. No flight attendant.

“Are you ferrying this flight?”

No answer from the cockpit.

“I couldn’t get a hold of dispatch. Do you need a mechanic?”

She pounded on the cockpit door.

“Anybody home?”

The door squeaked open, revealing a deserted flight deck. The control panel flashed yellow, red, and green--a Christmas tree gone haywire.

What was that annoying dinging sound?

She backed out of the cockpit and surveyed the galley. Pressed her hand against the coffee canister. Still warm.

Could the crew have left by some other exit?

She stood still, listening.

Heard moaning. High-pitched keening.

The noise came from the lav.

The door said vacant.

She turned the knob, pulled open the door. The toilet gurgled, and she peered into the bowl. Not blue juice. Crimson. A rotten stench attacked her nostrils, made her gag. The toilet lid fell with a thud.

Bending over the tiny sink she splashed water on her face, glanced at the mirror and thought it odd that she didn’t see herself--only the reflection of pale plastic walls splattered with what might be blood.

She bolted back into the galley, slammed the lav door shut and leaned against it, listening to the grumbling GPU.

The cockpit’s ding, ding, ding.

Her thumping heart.

Nerves frazzled she wanted to scoot, to clock out and go home. But the securing the aircraft was her responsibility. And she needed this job.

Stay calm.

An automated voice called from the cockpit, warning, warning, warning.

From the aft of the fuselage, she heard knocking on the thin wall that separated the cabin from the baggage pit.

“Who’s there?” she called.

Knees trembling, she clutched seat backs, steadying herself as she walked along the aisle. 3B, 4B, 5B. She glanced at a overhead bin. Heard scratching, someone whispering.
She turned and ran back toward the cockpit. But as the she reached the galley, the cabin door slammed shut.

The GPU groaned and sputtered. Died.

Then silence.

Even the incessant dinging stopped as the cabin swallowed her in darkness.
She pounded on the door. Tried to release the latch, but the handle didn’t budge.

“You’re one of us,” a voice whispered.

“One of who?”

The engines fired, and the propellers turned, faster, faster, becoming invisible.

“This is your captain,” a voice announced over the intercom. “Sit back and enjoy the ride.”

She glanced around the cabin. Every seat was occupied by faceless passengers.

One seat remained empty.

The aircraft rolled out of the gate, and with a lurch she sat.

“Prepare for takeoff.”

“No!” she screamed.

Kept screaming as the aircraft accelerated. Screamed louder when the wheels left the ground.

Wind carried her shrieks up into the mountains, up into the stars.

And in the distance a coyote howled.

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