The LangoliersStephen King
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THIS IS FOR JOE, ANOTHER WHITE-KNUCKLE FLIER
CHAPTER ONE BAD NEWS FOR CAPTAIN ENGLE. THE LITTLE BLIND GIRL. THE LADY’S SCENT. THE DALTON GANG ARRIVES IN TOMBSTONE. THE STRANGE PLIGHT OF FLIGHT 29.
Brian Engle rolled the American Pride L1011 to a stop at Gate 22 and flicked off the FASTEN SEATBELT light at exactly 10:14 P.M. He let a long sigh hiss through his teeth and unfastened his shoulder harness.
He could not remember the last time he had been so relieved—and so tired—at the end of a flight. He had a nasty, pounding headache, and his plans for the evening were firmly set. No drink in the pilots’ lounge, no dinner, not even a bath when he got back to Westwood. He intended to fall into bed and sleep for fourteen hours.
American Pride’s Flight 7—Flagship Service from Tokyo to Los Angeles—had been delayed first by strong headwinds and then by typical congestion at LAX… which was, Engle thought, arguably America’s worst airport, if you left out Logan in Boston. To make matters worse, a pressurization problem had developed during the latter part of the flight. Minor at first, it had gradually worsened until it was scary. It had almost gotten to the point where a blowout and explosive decompression could have occurred… and had mercifully grown no worse. Sometimes such problems suddenly and mysteriously stabilized themselves, and that was what had happened this time. The passengers now disembarking just behind the control cabin had not the slightest idea how close they had come to being people pâté on tonight’s flight from Tokyo, but Brian knew… and it had given him a whammer of a headache.
“This bitch goes right into diagnostic from here,” he told his co-pilot. “They know it’s coming and what the problem is, right?”
The co-pilot nodded. “They don’t like it, but they know.”
“I don’t give a shit what they like and what they don’t like, Danny. We came close tonight.”
Danny Keene nodded. He knew they had.
Brian sighed and rubbed a hand up and down the back of his neck. His head ached like a bad tooth. “Maybe I’m getting too old for this business.”
That was, of course, the sort of thing anyone said about his job from time to time, particularly at the end of a bad shift, and Brian knew damned well he wasn’t too old for the job—at forty-three, he was just entering prime time for airline pilots. Nevertheless, tonight he almost believed it. God, he was tired.
There was a knock at the compartment door; Steve Searles, the navigator, turned in his seat and opened it without standing up. A man in a green American Pride blazer was standing there. He looked like a gate agent, but Brian knew he wasn’t. It was John (or maybe it was James) Deegan, Deputy Chief of Operations for American Pride at LAX.
“Yes?” An internal set of defenses went up, and his headache flared. His first thought, born not of logic but of strain and weariness, was that they were going to try and pin responsibility for the leaky aircraft on him. Paranoid, of course, but he was in a paranoid frame of mind.
“I’m afraid I have some bad news for you, Captain.”
“Is this about the leak?” Brian’s voice was too sharp, and a few of the disembarking passengers glanced around, but it was too late to do anything about that now.
Deegan was shaking his head. “It’s your wife, Captain Engle.”
For a moment Brian didn’t have the foggiest notion what the man was talking about and could only sit there, gaping at him and feeling exquisitely stupid. Then the penny dropped. He meant Anne, of course.
“She’s my ex-wife. We were divorced eighteen months ago. What about her?”
“There’s been an accident,” Deegan said. “Perhaps you’d better come up to the office.”
Brian looked at him curiously. After the last three long, tense hours, all of this seemed strangely unreal. He resisted an urge to tell Deegan that if this was some sort of Candid Camera bullshit, he could go fuck himself. But of course it wasn’t. Airlines brass weren’t into pranks and games, especially at the expense of pilots who had just come very close to having nasty midair mishaps.
“What about Anne?” Brian heard himself asking again, this time in a softer voice. He was aware that his co-pilot was looking at him with cautious sympathy. “Is she all right?”
Deegan looked down at his shiny shoes and Brian knew that the news was very bad indeed, that Anne was a lot more than not all right. Knew, but found it impossible to believe. Anne was only thirty-four, healthy, and careful in her habits. He had also thought on more than one occasion that she was the only completely sane driver in the city of Boston… perhaps in the whole state of Massachusetts.
Now he heard himself asking something else, and it was really like that—as if some stranger had stepped into his brain and was using his mouth as a loudspeaker. “Is she dead?”
John or James Deegan looked around, as if for support, but there was only a single flight attendant standing by the hatch, wishing the deplaning passengers a pleasant evening in Los Angeles and glancing anxiously toward the cockpit every now and then, probably worried about the same thing that had crossed Brian’s mind—that the crew was for some reason to be blamed for the slow leak which had made the last few hours of the flight such a nightmare. Deegan was on his own. He looked at Brian again and nodded. “Yes—I’m afraid she is. Would you come with me, Captain Engle?”
At quarter past midnight, Brian Engle was settling into seat 5A of American Pride’s Flight 29—Flagship Service from Los Angeles to Boston. In fifteen minutes or so, that flight known to transcontinental travelers as the red-eye would be airborne. He remembered thinking earlier that if LAX wasn’t the most dangerous commercial airport in America, then Logan was. Through the most unpleasant of coincidences, he would now have a chance to experience both places within an eight-hour span of time: into LAX as the pilot, into Logan as a deadheading passenger.
His headache, now a good deal worse than it had been upon landing Flight 7, stepped up another notch.
A fire, he thought. A goddamned fire. What happened to the smoke-detectors, for Christ’s sake? It was a brand-new building!
It occurred to him that he had hardly thought about Anne at all for the last four or five months. During the first year of the divorce, she was all he had thought about, it seemed—what she was doing, what she was wearing, and, of course, who she was seeing. When the healing finally began, it had happened very fast… as if he had been injected with some spirit-reviving antibiotic. He had read enough about divorce to know what that reviving agent usually was: not an antibiotic but another woman. The rebound effect, in other words.
There had been no other woman for Brian—at least not yet. A few dates and one cautious sexual encounter (he had come to believe that all sexual encounters outside of marriage in the Age of AIDS were cautious), but no other woman. He had simply… healed.
Brian watched his fellow passengers come aboard. A young woman with blonde hair was walking with a little girl in dark glasses. The little girl’s hand was on the blonde’s elbow. The woman murmured to her charge, the girl looked immediately toward the sound of her voice, and Brian understood she was blind—it was something in the gesture of the head. Funny, he thought, how such small gestures could tell so much.
Anne, he thought. Shouldn’
t you be thinking about Anne?
But his tired mind kept trying to slip away from the subject of Anne—Anne, who had been his wife, Anne, who was the only woman he had ever struck in anger, Anne who was now dead.
He supposed he could go on a lecture tour; he would talk to groups of divorced men. Hell, divorced women as well, for that matter. His subject would be divorce and the art of forgetfulness.
Shortly after the fourth anniversary is the optimum time for divorce, he would tell them. Take my case. I spent the following year in purgatory, wondering just how much of it was my fault and how much was hers, wondering how right or wrong it was to keep pushing her on the subject of kids—that was the big thing with us, nothing dramatic like drugs or adultery, just the old kids-versus-career thing—and then it was like there was an express elevator inside my head, and Anne was in it, and down it went.
Yes. Down it had gone. And for the last several months, he hadn’t really thought of Anne at all… not even when the monthly alimony check was due. It was a very reasonable, very civilized amount; Anne had been making eighty thousand a year on her own before taxes. His lawyer paid it, and it was just another item on the monthly statement Brian got, a little two-thousand-dollar item tucked between the electricity bill and the mortgage payment on the condo.
He watched a gangly teenaged boy with a violin case under his arm and a yarmulke on his head walk down the aisle. The boy looked both nervous and excited, his eyes full of the future. Brian envied him.
There had been a lot of bitterness and anger between the two of them during the last year of the marriage, and finally, about four months before the end, it had happened: his hand had said go before his brain could say no. He didn’t like to remember that. She’d had too much to drink at a party, and she had really torn into him when they got home.
Leave me alone about it, Brian. Just leave me alone. No more talk about kids. If you want a sperm-test, go to a doctor. My job is advertising, not baby-making. I’m so tired of all your macho bullshit—
That was when he had slapped her, hard, across the mouth. The blow had clipped the last word off with brutal neatness. They had stood looking at each other in the apartment where she would later die, both of them more shocked and frightened than they would ever admit (except maybe now, sitting here in seat 5A and watching Flight 29’s passengers come on board, he was admitting it, finally admitting it to himself ). She had touched her mouth, which had started to bleed. She held out her fingers toward him.
You hit me, she said. It was not anger in her voice but wonder. He had an idea it might have been the first time anyone had ever laid an angry hand upon any part of Anne Quinlan Engle’s body.
Yes, he had said. You bet. And I’ll do it again if you don’t shut up. You’re not going to whip me with that tongue of yours anymore, sweetheart. You better put a padlock on it. I’m telling you for your own good. Those days are over. If you want something to kick around the house, buy a dog.
The marriage had crutched along for another few months, but it had really ended in that moment when Brian’s palm made brisk contact with the side of Anne’s mouth. He had been provoked—God knew he had been provoked—but he still would have given a great deal to take that one wretched second back.
As the last passengers began to trickle on board, he found himself also thinking, almost obsessively, about Anne’s perfume. He could recall its fragrance exactly, but not the name. What had it been? Lissome? Lithesome? Lithium, for God’s sake? It danced just beyond his grasp. It was maddening.
I miss her, he thought dully. Now that she’s gone forever, I miss her. Isn’t that amazing?
Lawnboy? Something stupid like that?
Oh stop it, he told his weary mind. Put a cork in it.
Okay, his mind agreed. No problem; I can quit. I can quit anytime I want. Was it maybe Lifebuoy? No—that’s soap. Sorry. Lovebite? Lovelorn?
Brian snapped his seatbelt shut, leaned back, closed his eyes, and smelled a perfume he could not quite name.
That was when the flight attendant spoke to him. Of course: Brian Engle had a theory that they were taught—in a highly secret post-graduate course, perhaps called Teasing the Geese—to wait until the passenger closed his or her eyes before offering some not-quite-essential service. And, of course, they were to wait until they were reasonably sure the passenger was asleep before waking him to ask if he would like a blanket or a pillow.
“Pardon me…” she began, then stopped. Brian saw her eyes go from the epaulets on the shoulders of his black jacket to the hat, with its meaningless squiggle of scrambled eggs, on the empty seat beside him.
She rethought herself and started again.
“Pardon me, Captain, would you like coffee or orange juice?” Brian was faintly amused to see he had flustered her a little. She gestured toward the table at the front of the compartment, just below the small rectangular movie screen. There were two ice-buckets on the table. The slender green neck of a wine bottle poked out of each. “Of course, I also have champagne.”
(Love Boy that’s not it close but no cigar)
the champagne, but only briefly. “Nothing, thanks,” he said. “And no in-flight service. I think I’ll sleep all the way to Boston. How’s the weather look?”
“Clouds at 20,000 feet from the Great Plains all the way to Boston, but no problem. We’ll be at thirty-six. Oh, and we’ve had reports of the aurora borealis over the Mojave Desert. You might want to stay awake for that.”
Brian raised his eyebrows. “You’re kidding. The aurora borealis over California? And at this time of year?”
“That’s what we’ve been told.”
“Somebody’s been taking too many cheap drugs,” Brian said, and she laughed. “I think I’ll just snooze, thanks.”
“Very good, Captain.” She hesitated a moment longer. “You’re the captain who just lost his wife, aren’t you?”
The headache pulsed and snarled, but he made himself smile. This woman—who was really no more than a girl—meant no harm. “She was my ex-wife, but otherwise, yes. I am.”
“I’m awfully sorry for your loss.”
“Have I flown with you before, sir?”
His smile reappeared briefly. “I don’t think so. I’ve been on overseas for the past four years or so.” And because it seemed somehow necessary, he offered his hand. “Brian Engle.”
She took it. “Melanie Trevor.”
Engle smiled at her again, then leaned back and closed his eyes once more. He let himself drift, but not sleep—the preflight announcements, followed by the take-off roll, would only wake him up again. There would be time enough to sleep when they were in the air.
Flight 29, like most red-eye flights, left promptly—Brian reflected that was high on their meager list of attractions. The plane was a 767, a little over half full. There were half a dozen other passengers in first class. None of them looked drunk or rowdy to Brian. That was good. Maybe he really would sleep all the way to Boston.
He watched Melanie Trevor patiently as she pointed out the exit doors, demonstrated how to use the little gold cup if there was a pressure loss (a procedure Brian had been reviewing in his own mind, and with some urgency, not long ago), and how to inflate the life vest under the seat. When the plane was airborne, she came by his seat and asked him again if she could get him something to drink. Brian shook his head, thanked her, then pushed the button which caused his seat to recline. He closed his eyes and promptly fell asleep.
He never saw Melanie Trevor again.
About three hours after Flight 29 took off, a little girl named Dinah Bellman woke up and asked her Aunt Vicky if she could have a drink of water.
Aunt Vicky did not answer, so Dinah asked again. When there was still no answer, she reached over to touch her aunt’s shoulder, but she was already quite sure that her hand would touch nothing but the back of an empty seat, and that was what happened. Dr. Feldman
had told her that children who were blind from birth often developed a high sensitivity—almost a kind of radar—to the presence or absence of people in their immediate area, but Dinah hadn’t really needed the information. She knew it was true. It didn’t always work, but it usually did… especially if the person in question was her Sighted Person.
Well, she’s gone to the bathroom and she’ll be right back, Dinah thought, but she felt an odd, vague disquiet settle over her just the same. She hadn’t come awake all at once; it had been a slow process, like a diver kicking her way to the surface of a lake. If Aunt Vicky, who had the window seat, had brushed by her to get to the aisle in the last two or three minutes, Dinah should have felt her.
So she went sooner, she told herself. Probably she had to Number Two—it’s really no big deal, Dinah. Or maybe she stopped to talk with somebody on her way back.
Except Dinah couldn’t hear anyone talking in the big airplane’s main cabin; only the steady soft drone of the jet engines. Her feeling of disquiet grew.
The voice of Miss Lee, her therapist (except Dinah always thought of her as her blind teacher), spoke up in her head: You mustn’t be afraid to be afraid, Dinah—all children are afraid from time to time, especially in situations that are new to them. That goes double for children who are blind. Believe me, I know. And Dinah did believe her, because, like Dinah herself, Miss Lee had been blind since birth. Don’t give up your fear… but don’t give in to it, either. Sit still and try to reason things out. You’ll be surprised how often it works.
Especially in situations that are new to them.
Well, that certainly fit; this was the first time Dinah had ever flown in anything, let alone coast to coast in a huge transcontinental jetliner.
Try to reason it out.
Well, she had awakened in a strange place to find her Sighted Person gone. Of course that was scary, even if you knew the absence was only temporary—after all, your Sighted Person couldn’t very well decide to pop off to the nearest Taco Bell because she had the munchies when she was shut up in an airplane flying at 37,000 feet. As for the strange silence in the cabin… well, this was the red-eye, after all. The other passengers were probably sleeping.