Author’s note: One of the best things about owning a blog is it’s a great place to workshop ideas or write insane stories without too much fear of criticism. Cockpit is definitely becoming one of those projects. Keeping with the spirit of previous books I’ve started with WordPress, I’ve started to serialize a new novel-length effort.
The hardest part of writing a long story is the obvious challenge: where do you start? It took me a couple of weeks to figure that part out and I think I have found my stride with Cockpit. It’s about two friends in the Uintas on a fishing trip when they witness something out of place.
The other nice thing about blogs is they are free for readers. Not that there is anything I could write that people would actually want to pay for (or read for that matter), but I thought it would be fun to offer the first 40 pages of the book for your consideration. Hopefully you’ll enjoy it as much as I have writing it.
I won’t be posting any further chapters now that I have got the nuts and bolts of Cockpit figured out, but if you’re still interested in following along as I finish the book, send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org and I share chapters as they finish.
Also, if you’d like full PDFs of my previous efforts, Hibernate, Decade or Shivers, let me know and I’ll send it along as well.
Per usual, be a mensch and tell a friend.
Mike heard the plane long before we ever saw it.
“Jesus, Bill,” Mike said, reeling in his fly rod. “You ever seen a commercial plane out here before?”
I shook my head no as I stared up at the sky.
In the years I’ve been fishing the streams and lakes up in the Uintas, I’ve never seen anything bigger than a Piper Cub cruising above the national park’s air space. Every now and then, you can make out the contrail of one of those big jumbo jets heading east or west, but I’ve never had a 737 buzz right over my head.
“It’s like they’re on a sightseeing tour or something,” I said as the plane quickly disappeared over the ridgeline. “I hope everything is all right.”
Half of the reason we go up to the Uintas is to escape the noise and civilization of the Salt Lake City, but right now, it felt like the West Fork Bear River was right over a flight path.
“That was nuts,” Mike said moving upstream.
The plane was flying a little over a thousand feel above the lodgepole pines and crackled mountains. I couldn’t make out the airline with the setting sun, but I definitely could make out the shadows of people in the windows.
“You think they’re okay, Mike?” I asked starting to bring in my own rod. “It looks like something is wrong.”
“I’m not sure,” Mike said. “But I’ll tell you what. I’m glad I’m not on that flight.”
I nodded and starting walking out of the river.
For the last four days, Mike and I have been on our yearly fishing trip up in the Uintas National Park. We always like to get up here the Tuesday after Labor Day before they open up the park to elk hunters and all of the craziness the hunters brought with them.
It’s a tradition we’ve had since graduate school at the University of Utah.
“Yeah, me too,” I said. “Hey look, Mike, I hate to throw in the towel, but I think that plane just scared the crap out of the trout. Besides, we have to finish that whiskey before we hike out of here tomorrow. What do you say we call it a night?”
I could tell he wasn’t quite ready to call it quits.
“I want to get a couple more cast in before it’s pitch dark,” Mike said putting on a fresh nymph on his leader. “You mind getting the fire started? I’ll be down in a bit.”
“No problem,” I said, grabbing my gear and making my way through the quaking aspen.
There was probably another 25 minutes of daylight before it became impossibly dark. I had already caught more fish in the last four days to get me through every water cooler story at the factory. I was sore from all the hiking, a little pickled from the drinking and ready to trade in the tent I shared with Mike to the bed I shared with my wife.
Suddenly, the commercial plane buzzed over my head again, but this time, it was considerably closer to the ground. In the seconds it flew by, I could actually make out people’s faces.
“Holy shit,” I said, my words being drowned out by the large engines.
Looking up, I could see the plane banking hard to the left, barely clearly the mountain tops before climbing quickly into a figure eight. I didn’t have to worry about Mike walking back to camp alone, because he came running down after me.
“You see that again? What the hell are they doing up there? My lord, as the crow flies, Salt Lake’s airport is like 50 miles that way,” Mike said pointing towards the west.
“I know. Something is definitely happening up there. I swear I could make out people looking out the windows.”
“Me too,” Mike said as we hurried down the hill towards are little base camp. “I think we should make scrap the rest of the trip and get to the truck.”
“You want to hike out of here at night?” I asked. “I think that’s a pretty bad idea.”
It was another half-mile to our camp and at least an hour hike through some pretty serious backcountry before we made it back to Mike’s truck.
“I got a real bad feeling about this plane, Bill,” Mike said picking up the pace. “God forbid something happens to that plane, I don’t want to be in the middle of the forest when the world comes to help them out.”
“The last time we drove at night in the Uintas, I hit a deer and destroyed the front end of my truck, dude,” I said exhausted.
“No kidding,” Mike said pointing at the scar along his forehead. “This will be different. Besides, after we get to cell phone range, we can head up to Evanston and I’ll buy dinner. Worst case scenario is we’ll get a motel room and get home five hours earlier.”
He had a point as the plane roared above our heads again right as we got to camp.
We packed up quickly, breaking down the tent and rolling up the sleeping bags. I had replaced the weight of beer and chili in my backpack with the five beautiful rainbow trouts I had caught. My legs were killing me, but I just followed Mike’s lead with a handful of aspirin and decent pull off of the whiskey bottle. Turning on our headlamps, we started the slow decent back to the truck.
The plane passed over our head again. Not only could we hear the engines, we could see the running lights on the wings as it swooped around. I didn’t want to say it, but I was glad Mike forced us to get out of there.
Mike Butters was a social worker for the VA. He dealt with some pretty messed up characters at the homeless shelter. It was a lot of vets coming home from Iraq and Afghanistan who got hooked on drugs and were homeless. Even though he wasn’t the biggest guy, I knew he was tough because I’ve seen him brawl guys back at the bar. I knew he was a good social worker because he cared about people that nobody ever cared about.
“Am I crazy or does it sound like that plane is going straight to your truck?” I asked breathlessly as we made our way down the pitch black trail.
“I swear to God, I will be suing the snot out of that airline if anything happens to my truck,” Mike laughed. “Or I’ll buy them a dozen roses when I take the insurance money and get an F-150.”
The last thing I remember was smiling at Mike’s joke.
We were both launched into the air about 15 feet, landing hard against the trees. I felt hot air burn against my face as I struggled to pull of my pack. Rolling over, I yelled for Mike and he yelled back. I didn’t think anything was broken, but my entire body hurt—like I had been hit by a baseball bat. Looking down the mountain, I could see a new trail that stretched nearly a mile with smoldering trees, snapped in half uniformly with a ball of fire at the end.
The commercial plane had snuck up on us and came to a crash landing. I could feel blood breaking from my face and hands as I struggled to stand up. Mike found me by my headlamp and rushed to my side. Picking me up, we missed being crushed by the plane’s fuselage by about a hundred feet.
“What the fuck was that?” I yelled.
“Jesus Christ, I have never seen anything like that,” Mike answered, his face was battered and bleeding. “That fucking plane nearly landed on us.”
“I know,” I said as a wrapped an arm around him to avoid falling over.
“It landed like a sled or something,” he said describing the plane coming down hard and sliding down the trailhead. “I’m surprised the thing didn’t explode right above us. I don’t think it had it’s landing gear down.”
I started sputtering out ideas to explain what happened.
“Maybe their fuel tanks were empty? Maybe they were burning through their fuel? Maybe it was a terrorism attack?”
“Yeah, I don’t know but that plane should be engulfed in flames.”
“It’s burning pretty good, Mike,” I said correcting him.
“Nah, I think you were right. That plane was flying figure eights to burn off the fuel. I just can’t imagine why they didn’t do it closer to town.”
I stood their dumbfounded. Why didn’t the plane try and make it to Salt Lake?
“Let’s get down there and see if they need help.”
I wanted to argue but I knew he was right. I pulled out a couple of extra flashlights and handed one to Mike. Even though we were both pretty beaten up, we had to head that direction anyway. Mike’s truck was real close to where the plane ended up. So, one way or another, we were going to find out what happened to the plane.
We limped down the trail.
When the gust of the plane swooped over us, I flew into the air and landed on my hip. I could feel the bruise swelling under my jeans. I could barely walk but I wanted to keep up with Mike. In about ten minutes, we started to notice pieces of the plane broken into the ground. My only experience with plane crashes were from the internet or television. I’ve never seen one in person. I kept expecting to have my headlamp land on survivors walking around stunned after sliding down the inflatable yellow slide, but all I saw were shredded trees and a deep gulch formed where the plane slid down.
“Careful, Billy, it’s pretty slick up here. Looks like a toboggan slot or something,” Mike said.
Flashing lights formed the shape of the plane in the distance and there were small fires, but nothing of the fireballs I’ve seen online. Even more disturbing than the lack of fire was stillness of the night. There wasn’t any sound in the night air. I thought maybe the engines would still be winding down or we’d hear the sound of passengers screaming for help, but nothing. Not a God damn sound.
“You think anyone made it?” I asked. “It looks like a movie crash. I thought we’d see something.”
Mike hushed me.
Pointing to the north of us, there was a hunk of the plane caught in a tree.
We both gasped.
“You weren’t kidding, Billy. This looks just like a movie. That’s the part of the wing with the flaps on it. I can’t believe it broke off.”
“I can’t believe the plane isn’t on fire,” I said. “Jesus, Mike, this is freaking me out.”
Our lamps lit up our faces. I could tell Mike was pretty nervous too.
“Yeah, let’s see if we can help and if not, let’s get the hell out of here.”
He patted me on the shoulder and we continued down the trail following the deep trench the plane dug into the side of the mountain.
Even though the autumn air was pretty brisk, I was sweating hard through my jacket. I could see my breath in the light of my lamp and I could see it stop when we finally got to the plane.
Even though I have flown in literally hundreds of flights, I’ve never been on the outside of a plane. It was huge—like almost 30 feet high. The left wing had been ripped off and were scattered around in the bottom of the trail with debris everywhere. I literally tripped over a piece of luggage as I tried to get a sense about how big it is.
“Looks like a giant cigar tube,” Mike whispered as he scanned the windows with his flashlight. “Let’s split up. I’ll meet you on the other side.”
I nodded in the dark as I walked around the plane. It was an El Dorado Airline jet with a mural of a fly fisherman on the tail fin. I touched the fuselage with my hand and it was cold. If it wasn’t for the fact that we watched the crash, I would have sworn this plane had been here for weeks. I flickered the flashlight on and off into the windows of the plane hoping for some sort of life, but all I saw was the beacon lights on the side of the plane and the tailfin.
Mike had an easier time getting around the plane and met me by the right wing. It was dug deep into the earth and we were able to walk on top of it.
“I don’t know much, but I do know they put airplane fuel in the wings. I would have bet a million dollars this sucker would be on fire by now,” I said as we cautiously walked to the window. “Nothing makes sense.”
“You’re telling me,” Mike said as he cautiously peered through the window.
He quickly jerked back.
My heart quit beating for a moment as I joined him at a neighboring window.
The tight light beam from the LED flashlight illuminated the cabin and I saw them. All of them. There were like a hundred people strapped into their chairs, slumped over. I couldn’t tell if they were alive or dead, but the plane was filled with people.
I pulled back.
“What the fuck?” Mike whispered as we carefully walked away from the windows. “They look like cadavers or corpses. I mean, am I crazy, or did this plane just crash land?”
I shrugged my shoulders hard. I didn’t know what I just saw. Maybe blunt trauma killed them on landing or maybe they didn’t have any oxygen when then they landed, but I’m pretty sure they were all dead. But Mike and I had more cuts and scraps from the plane nearly landing on us. They just looked like they were frozen in time.
I mustered more courage and went back to look again. I chose another of the seven windows on along the wing and saw a young woman with earbuds in pressed against the emergency exit. She was pretty, kinda reminded me of my wife, and wasn’t moving. I counted to ten waiting for her to take a breath or move, but nothing. The person sitting in the middle seat was crouched over into the seat in front of him and I couldn’t make out the person on the aisle. I tapped the window with my flashlight a couple of times hoping to rouse them, but they didn’t shift or even respond.
“It looks like they’re all dead,” I said louder than a whisper. “What do you think we should do?”
I could make out Mike’s face in the flashing of the running lights on the plane and he stood their dumbfounded.
“I don’t know. Part of me wants to find my truck and hightail it Evanston. Another part of me wants to set up camp here and wait for the authorities.,” Mike said. “I guarantee this place is going to be overrun with law enforcement within the hour.”
“Wouldn’t you think with their beacons and stuff that there should be a helicopter here now? There’s no way the pilot wasn’t maydaying it all the way down. And there is no way were the only people in the Uintas. And frankly, I’m worried about this plane going up like a Roman candle at any moment.”
We slid off the wing and made our way to the front of the plane. With the exception of the lights, there wasn’t any activity in or around the plane. Mike suggested we try and see if the pilot was alive. The plane was tilted towards the right and a crop of trees leaned against the front windshields.
“Tell you what: I’ll climb up there and see if I can see anything. If it’s just dead pilots, let’s get the hell out of here. If not, we’ll go from there.”
“You sure you just don’t want to get the truck and find help?”
“Bill, we’re still an hour away from the truck, it’s pitch black and we’re the first to a crash site. We got to see if there are any survivors or people we can help.”
“Fucking social workers…” I muttered as I help find the strongest pine for Mike to climb.
I guess he was more hurt than he led on. He tried to reach above his head, but he complained he didn’t have the arm strength to pull himself up. I told him to take off his jacket and I reeled. A hunk of a branch had dug itself deep into his right shoulder and he was bleeding pretty bad.
“Jesus, bud,” I said applying direct pressure to the wound. “You’re pretty jacked up.”
“I guess the adrenaline kept me going,” he winced. “You going to do some frontier medicine on me?”
We shared our first laugh in hours. I took out the first aid kit and the bottle of whiskey. I took a pull and handed it to him. Mike took a horsechoker sized pull and gave it back to me.
“You’re going to need about four stiches to keep this bleeding down. Jesus, Mike, how could you not feel the blood coming out of you?”
“I just saw a fucking plane crash land right in front of me.”
Mike laid down on his belly and I cleaned the wound out with a splash of whiskey. Cleaning the gash out with a cotton pad, I started sewing him up. The oozing blood slowly stopped a trickle and eventually ceased. I hit it again with another splash of whiskey, took a pull for myself and tapped a hunk of gauze over it.
“Where would I be without you, William Cooper?”
“Probably not dodging commercial planes in the forest,” I said cleaning up. “Since you’re going to be recuperating for a minute, I’ll climb the damn tree.”
It was about 20 feet up to the cockpit window and the lodgepole pine was leaning right into it. Jumping up, I pulled myself off the ground and started climbing. The branches were thick and close together making the ascent difficult. I kept expecting headlights or something to start converging on the plane, but nothing.
It was like we were the last two people on the planet.
The last stretch was the worst. I was forced to circle around the tree trunk until I spun against the side of the plane. Inching up, I could barely see inside the cockpit. Unlike the cabin which was completely dark, there were instrumental lights still on inside. I could feel a faint buzzing from the machines and I saw movement.
“What do you see, Billy?”
I ignored Mike and crawled a little bit higher in the tree to look clearly into the cockpit. One of the pilots was hunched over in his seat with both of his hands holding the yoke. But by the door, there was another pilot thrashing about with the door.
I started banging on the window.
“Hey! Hey! You okay? You must be pretty shaken up. You just go through a plane crash,” I yelled. “What can we do to help? How can we get inside to help you.”
The pilot’s face was contorted and beet red. It was terrifying to look at, shifting from anger to joy to sadness. Eventually he settled on a mischievous face and started to bounce with giggles.
Mike asked what was going on.
“My name is Bill. How can I help you? Are you okay? You must be in shock!”
Ignoring me, he fumbled with the security latch and pulled the door open. Instead of leaving the cockpit, he turned around to me and moved forward. His right hand looked broken with shards of bone breaking through his wrist and hand. Slapping the window, he blotted it out in blood while continuing to laugh.
“Hey! Hey! How can I help….”
The sound and flash of a gun stopped my inquiry.
I more or less had a control fall out of the tree.
Letting go of the branch, I tried to hug the trunk and fall to the ground. Mike didn’t bother to ask me what I saw.
“We should get the fuck out of here,” Mike said handing me the whiskey bottle.
I took a greedy drink.
“This is way outside of our pay grade. Nobody is going to fault us for leaving. Let’s get to the truck and find help. I’m sure we can help lead the right people back here,” he said. “Besides, Billy, any amount of courage I had just dropped out of me.”
I nodded in agreement.
Taking stock of myself, I realized after the initial shock of looking at a madman and falling out of a tree that I was in a ton of pain. I twisted my ankle on the fall and my hip was a blast furnace of pain from getting knocked down by the plane.
“Yeah, I was just pretending to be brave. I was trying to follow your lead, but you’re right. There’s nothing here we can do to help,” I said taking a much smaller gulp and handing the bottle back to Mike. “At best we could do some triage on a survivor, but I don’t think there is any. Let’s get our stuff and get the hell out of here.”
We both gingerly grabbed our backpacks and started gearing up for the long walk to the truck. Mike was certain it would be a tough mile or so, but he was so good navigating in the forest that I trusted him implicitly.
“He shot himself, right?” He asked as we found the remains of the trailhead and started down.
I told him what I saw.
“Like a paint brush? Jesus. I can’t even imagine what happened on that flight.”
We took our time scampering over the rocks and through the tightly lined trees. I could almost hear the blood pooling under his shoulder. My legs were garbage. The best I could do was hobble every ten or so paces and stop to catch my breath. I wanted more to drink, but I knew I had to keep the rest of my wits.
Turning back after a half hour of walking, I could actually make out the plane from the light of the stars. Even without the moon, the white fuselage of the plane glowed under the night sky. I mentioned to Mike how short of a distance we covered and he laughed at us.
“We’re on the injured reserve list, buddy, any step towards the truck is winning.”
The interior of the plane lit up.
“You see that?” I stammered, nearly falling over.
“I can’t believe it,” Mike said. “Maybe the emergency lights came on.”
“Maybe that pilot didn’t kill himself.”
We stood there thinking of every horrible possibility.
Even though we had covered a fair bit of distance, we were still very close to the downed plane. From our vantage point, I could make out each of the windows along the right side and a dull glow coming out of the cockpit. We both strained our eyes trying to see if there was any movement.
“You’re not going to like what I’m going to say,” I told Mike as I fished for a water bottle. My mouth was bone dry and I thought I might be hallucinating. “Maybe we should go back.”
Mike didn’t respond immediately. He just stood there, breathing in the cold air and thinking. He was probably more stunned that his words came out of my mouth more than the airplane coming back to life. For as long as I’ve known him, Mike Butters was the first guy to jump off the cliff, explore an uncharted trail or talk to the best looking girl in the bar. He was fearless and tough. I hope I wasn’t bullying him right now.
“Jesus, Bill, that’s the worst fucking idea I’ve ever heard.”
We started laughing again.
“That’s what you said when I told you Jill and I were getting married.”
We laughed a little harder.
“Seriously, Bill, what’s the positive outcome with us going back? Not getting shot? For all we know you nailed it when you said maybe the pilot didn’t kill himself. Maybe he put a bullet into the other pilot. Maybe he shot the floor or the black box. Maybe the plane is cursed, alien invaders or maybe a thousand other fucking things happened. I don’t know what you’re hoping for.”
“I don’t know, man. But I’ve never seen anything like this and I know help is going to be on the way,” I said. “Look, I’m scared as shit but I’m worried if we don’t go back to see what happened, I’m going to regret it for the rest of my life.”
We paused for a moment.
“Here, let’s do this. Why don’t we split up?” I suggested. “You go back to the truck and I’ll see what is going on up there. And you can tell the authorities exactly where the downed plane is.”
I could see his smile with my headlamp.
“That’s the second worst idea I’ve heard tonight,” Mike said. “We’re not splitting up. Besides, Jill would kill us both.”
Looking back up the hill, I still couldn’t see any movement which strengthened my resolve that everything would be okay. I told Mike as much and he gave me that crazy shrug he did before he did something ridiculously dangerous.
“All right, let’s do it, but if anything and I mean anything comes at us, we’re dropping our packs and running the hell out of here.”
I started back up the trail with Mike following behind me.
The ascent back up the hill was actually easier on my body. My knees and hips didn’t hurt as much and I could dig in with every step. But I could tell that Mike and I were exhausted. We’ve been up for close to 24 hours. Forget about the amount of stress and physical exertion we’ve done today. For the last four days, we’ve been running around in the mountains, fishing, drinking and sleeping on the hard pack ground.
Remove witnessing a plane crash and nearly getting sucked into the engines, it has been one of our best trips. We’ve been coming up here together for 12 years. I met Mike in the President’s Circle at the University of Utah when we were both first year grade students. He was working for a MSW and I was getting an MA in political science. He was practicing his fly cast in the middle of the quad. He swore years later he was just trying to perfect his false casting—I was certain he was just showing off to the coeds.
We struck up a fast friendship and shared an apartment our second year of school.
Even with the rigors of school, practicums and student teaching, we both found time to hit the lakes and streams around Salt Lake City on the weekend. Growing up in Corvallis, Mike had been fly fishing his entire life and had an encyclopedic knowledge of the sport he willingly shared with his roommate from Las Vegas. It took me years to get proficient enough to keep up with Mike, but I have always been indebted to him for his patience and carefree nature when we hit the water.
When a botched trip to Burning Man fell through, Mike decided we should go on a backcountry fishing trip to the Uintas.
It proved to be a carnival of errors.
The list of things that went wrong included startling a moose, getting chased by a bear, losing both flashlights, running out of beer, not catching a single fish in three days, locking the keys in the truck, breaking a window of the truck to free the keys, not only getting one but two flat tires, getting towed into Evanston, maxing out three credit cards to get fix the tires, missing the deadline for a grant and having Mike’s girlfriend waiting on the doorsteps to dump him when we limped home.
It turned out to be the best trip of our lives. We agreed immediately to make the trip a tradition.
Following graduation, Mike got his job at the VA and I started teaching at the community college. Even with me struggling to finish a doctoral project, marrying Jill and trying to start a family, we’ve been lucky to make this backcountry trip every year. And even though we’ve had amazing adventures since that first slobberknocker of a trip, nothing matches what we were doing now.
We were absolutely gassed as he huffed up the hill. It took nearly twice as long to get back to the plane with neither one of us saying a word. I tried to imagine what Mike was thinking and the best I could come up with he was trying to figure out what the hell I was thinking.
I kept my eyes focused on the plane with every step. Amongst the pine trees in the Uintas, it looked like a discarded Christmas tree. The windows shown a light like a lantern and I prayed equally for some movement or for everything to remain the same.
It was probably a big mistake coming back to the plane.
When we finally summited, we both collapsed against a patch of trees just away from the plane.
“I feel like my lungs are going to explode,” Mike whispered. “What’s the next step?”
I fished out Tylenol from my bag, swallowed a handful and tossed the jar to Mike.
“Honestly, I have no fucking idea.”
“Well, you better come up with one because my back is killing me and I was promised no ghost ships on this trip.”
“Yeah, I guess promises were broken.”
I could feel his smile.
“Look, I’m cool that we came back here, but let’s make a deal,” Mike said. “No more splitting up. If and when the TSA, NTSB, FDA or NBA shows up here, I want to make sure our stories are straight. Besides, with as beaten up as I’m feeling, I’d rather us stay together.”
“Yeah, I’m totally with you,” I agreed. “I think we should rest up for a minute and go look on the wing again. I know this sounds crazy, but do you have any weapons.”
“Just a rapier wit.”
“Granted,” I said. “How about tools? I’ve got my buck knife and the folding shovel.”
Mike said he had about the same. Neither one us were gun guys, even though we did like to go trap shooting at our pal’s place up in Logan.
I laid my head on my pack and stared up at the plane. Instinctly, I pulled out my phone hoping thee would be any service, but I already knew we were alone. The only reason either one of us brought our cell phones was to use it to take pictures. We traded off nights of playing music through our phones as we drifted off to sleep in the tent to save on battery charge. What did work was the weather function. Even though the information was four days old, it said the sunrise was in three hours. I didn’t know much, but I knew none of this was be nearly as terrifying with the sun up.
Standing up, I helped Mike off the ground and we walked silently towards the right wing.
With light flooding the area, I could see that one of the cargo bays on the bottom of the plane had cracked open and I saw the stacked luggage. There was more debris surrounding the plane than I remember and not just natural stuff like busted trees. There was hunks of metal, bags scattered and magazines and newspapers. Mike gently kicked one of the plastic boxes and opened it. It was a Styrofoam box filled with dry ice and hermetically sealed fish. The packing label said Alaska and Mike whispered it was twice the amount of fish I caught on our trip. Giving him the bird, we moved forward and bunny hopped on the wing.
For whatever reason, my mind wandered to a cocktail party. When I was an undergraduate, I worked at a country club in Las Vegas and the windows on the plane reminded me of the swinging doors that separated the kitchen from the dining floor. I kept expecting to see folks dressed in evening wear waltzing and drinking through the airplane windows. I wisely kept this thought to myself as we moved to the windows directly above where the wing met the fuselage.
Even though we were both monitoring our breathing, nothing could contain the gasp we both let out when we finally pressed our faces against the glass. The passengers were still strapped into their seats, but with the overhead lights, we could make out some of their faces. Or what we thought were faces.
Some people had normal skin color and looked simply asleep. Others were much more horrifying. For lack of a better description, they looked like they were mummies. Their faces were contorted in agonizing pain with hunks of skin broken off exposing brownish flesh or charred bone. I swear it looked like they were frozen in time with some sort of ungodly scream emitting from their body but no one to hear it. What was perplexing was there seemed to be no order to why some folks looked asleep and others resting in the bowels of hell. There was a randomness to the infected people scattered throughout the plane and what was even scarier was the fact that the normal looking people didn’t seem to have the slightest injury on them even though they had just “survived” a plane crash.
I wanted to look away and run away from the window, but I couldn’t.
I jumped when Mike put his hand on my shoulder.
“We’ve got big problems, Bill.”
I couldn’t say anything but I mouthed an apology. I shouldn’t have brought us back here.
“Yeah, Mike, yeah. I think we do.”
“No,” he said solemnly as he pointed to the northeast.
Off in the distance, I could barely make out a set of headlights. Even though I didn’t know the area nearly as well as Mike, I had a suspicion that was the road that took us back to Crystal Lake Highway. It was bumping up and down and winding towards the lot were we left the truck. We backed away from the windows.
“What are you talking about, dude?” I asked confused. “That’s the Calvary. They’re coming to investigate this plane crash.”
“If that’s the Calvary, why is it only one set of headlights? And why isn’t there any siren lights?” Mike said calmly. “I don’t think that’s any emergency service. It could be anything or anybody, but considering our situation, anything short of a guy with a buzz cut and tin star on his chest isn’t going to be good.”
It slowly started to sink in what Mike was explaining.
“By my best count, I’d say they’ll be at the trailhead in about ten minutes and it’ll take them easily two hours to hump it up here. It’s some pretty brutal terrain up here and it sucks hiking in the dark.”
“We don’t know if they know about the plane crash,” I said. “For all we know, they could be hunters getting a jump on the elk season.”
“Be that as it may, Bill, we don’t know shit and I’m starting to get worried about you.”
A bolt shot across my chest.
“You’re acting like we have some sort of claim to this jumbo jet. Jesus, man, it literally fell from the sky and it’s filled with people and things that aren’t ours. The smartest move we can make is to hightail it out of here and hopefully hide while whoever is coming up here passes us on the trail. We don’t have any business being up here anymore,” Mike said. “And I’ll say what you’re probably thinking: this is some terrifying shit going on right now. The last time I checked, when I saw a chick with a hunk of her face laying in her lap it was on television. Whether this is end of days shit or the worst and most imaginative prank ever pulled, we need to get the fuck out of here.”
We continued to watch the headlights.
“However these people died is out of our hands,” Mike said gently punching me on the shoulder. He winced with pain from doing it. “We gotta get out of here.”
Without saying anything, I agreed. I looked back to the windows and told him I want to see if I can get a picture with my phone. Mustering courage, I walked with one eye towards a window and the other at the distant headlights. Mike wasn’t kidding. I was acting like own the place. I guess being in the center of a great mystery was enough to make me act out. I wasn’t complaining about my life, but something like this was a real potboiler.
Rarely did anything really exciting happen to me.
I inched towards the window and was still shocked at the grotesque and pained people sitting down, all facing forward. It was the people that looked asleep that scared me even more. They had a level of calm that defied the situation. I put the phone up and started snapping pictures. The flash against the window whited out the first couple of pictures. Fussing to slide it off, Mike told me to hurry up. I said I’d be done in a second.
I moved up to the wing towards the edge and tried to get a picture of the two types of people. A rotting corpse blocked most of a window leaving only a sliver of to click the photo.
Click. Click. Click.
I tried to focus in on a young woman. She was one that wasn’t defective or infected. Pretty with dirty blonde hair, she sat in the middle seat, sandwiched between two of the diseased ones. Your family would be really disturbed if they knew she died in such a horrid place.
Click. Click. Jesus.
“Mike! Mike!” I yelled. “She moved!”
Mike ran up the length of the wing. Pointing through the window, Mike moved me aside and saw the girl struggling to get up. She wasn’t aware she was still in her seat belt. Mike banged on the window trying to draw her attention. It was the first time I considered how secure the windows were. I also noticed it was an emergency exit window. By convoluting, she knocked over the body by the window who folded over life a lawn chair giving us a clear view. She acted just like the pilot did.
“Hey, are you okay?” Mike asked banging on the hull. “Jesus, Billy, this isn’t good. Not at all.”
Mike abruptly stopped slapping the plane and started giving play-by-play what the woman was doing. She freed herself from the seatbelt. She stood up and stretched. She looked throughout the airplane and smiled. She saw Mike and smiled. She unclicked the seat belt of the corpse by the window. She threw the body like a ragdoll over the seat in front of her. She grabbed the handles to the emergency door and pulled them to her.
We threw ourselves into the door as she started to push it out. We’re big strong guys and we couldn’t stop her. The door landed on us with me hitting the wing and rolling off the side. I landed hard.
I fought to get to my feet but stumbled. I heard Mike yell again but my head was too cloudy. I forced myself to get up and run to jump back on the wing.
I could barely see Mike unconscious under the massive emergency door with the woman trying to budge the door off of him. Not thinking, I ran and dove over the door, tackling the woman into the side of the plane. I heard a severe crack and felt her body go limp. Releasing her, I move the door of off him.
“Mike, Mike,” I said trying to revive him. He looked pale but he was breathing.
The emergency door noisily followed my fall and fell to the ground in a crash.
Any level of fear that I had now was taking over my body. I needed to focus. Focus on one thing. Get Mike off this wing and into safety. I grabbed him by his jacket and started dragging him to the edge to carry him away from the opening of the plane.
My heart raced waiting for the next rush of normals to break out of the plane, but nothing. Clumsily, I got down and threw him over my shoulder and carried him the nest I could to out bags. We dropped to the ground hard, where I prompt him up against the tree and tried to wake him up.
“Hey, dude, I need you,” I whispered over and over again as I tried to give him water and covering him with his sleeping bag. “Hey, dud, I need you, come on, man. We’re in some shit right now.”
I noticed that I left my pouch on the wing and dared myself to go get it.
It had my spare flashlight, the pain pills, pocketknife and other stuff. I left Mike and darted to retrieve it. Even though I didn’t want to, I had to know if the woman I tackled was alive. Gingerly walking over, careful of the open plane, I dropped to one knee, and looked right in her face. She was as cold and still as Mike. I checked for a pulse one her wrist and felt something very soft.
That was enough for me. It meant something not be a killer.
I had a low-grade buzz like a guitar not plugged into a amp. My hands shook, my eyes were bleary, my knees were garbage. The sound of the buzz deafened me as I looked at Mike’s body and wondered how I was going to get him out of here.
My situation became a battle of fears and isolation that kept getting louder and louder. I choked down the terror and racked my brain what to do next.
It didn’t take me long to formulate a plan.
The headlights driving towards our truck just turned off.
737-300 Boeing. Seattle, Washington. Spirit of Reno. 10.14.07.
I didn’t know for sure what the plane was until dawn broke and I could see the stamp on the front of the plane.
It looked like God’s flashlight coming over the mountains and the first rays hit illuminated the plane. I felt better. Somehow surviving until dawn gave me a bunch of hope things were going to be okay.
I had tried to move Mike but he wouldn’t budge. After getting knocked out, he lay peacefully on his pack and slept. I never considered leaving him, and stood watch waiting for something to come out of the emergency exit until I couldn’t keep my eyes open anymore.
I desperately needed the sleep.
Wiping the frost from my glasses, I checked on Mike and it seemed better. Instead of being silent, he was gently snoring and had rolled over on his side. He has the amazing ability to sleep anywhere, proving that time and time again by passing out under lean-tos or under heaps of leaves. Hopefully, he was on the mend.
I stood up and tried to shake the rust off of my body. I was battered. Everything hurt. My hip was probably the worst. I still couldn’t believe that I was launched in the air. Nobody short of Jill will believe what happened and it’ll take the huge bruise to prove something went down up here.
I’m starting to really miss my wife.
I saw the girl I tackled propped up against the hull of the plane. She hadn’t moved an inch. I hope she’s okay but there was no God damn way I was every going back on the wing of this plane. I picked up a sturdy stick and used it as a makeshift crutch and started to inspect the plane. The lights were still dimly on inside the cabin and I could make out the blackening of the window in the cockpit. So much for hallucinating the pilot shooting himself. There were bags and garbage everywhere. Walking counter-clockwise around the plane, I was jolted to see the left wing torn clean off. Even worse, was the deep trench the plane created screaming down the mountain.
I took a leak into the shrubs when something occurred to me: nothing smelt out of line. Commercial planes don’t belong in the middle of the forest but if they did, shouldn’t there be some sort of diesel, oil or grease smell? This plane must have been bone dry when the captain decided to put it down. Or did he decide?
I must have taken a thousand flights and everyone made me nervous. I knew statistically most airplane accidents happened on takeoff, so if we could get off the ground and to a decent cruising height, everything would be okay. Also, I knew pilots were egomaniacs. They wanted to live more than anybody else on the plane and would do anything to make sure they got on the ground. There were too many flight attendants to screw to put the nose into the side of a mountain.
But airports smelt different and when you board a plane, it has that jet fuel smell and this plane did leak a drop. All of the small fires were probably caused by the friction of how many tons of flying metal scrapping across the rocks and boulders up here in the Uintas.
It should have been a fireball, instead it was a quiet crackle.
I moved to the tail of the plane and nodded at the fly fishing angler on the tail wing. Most of the hatches were still sealed with the only ones open were breeched by the weight of the plane hitting the ground. I’m surprised the plane didn’t break into multiple pieces or split in half. It’s hard not to think of every movie or television show you’ve seen to try to qualify this disaster.
Mike said it the best when things were still idyllic and peaceful in the river, “I’m glad I’m not on that flight.”
I heard the snapping of brush behind me and swung around. I was met by two guys holding rifles.
“Hey, guys,” I said panicked. They must be the people driving the truck. I admonished myself for not being more careful. “You should have been here last night.”
They raised the guns up to their shoulders. One of them told me to get on my knees.
I hated myself for dropping as quickly as I did.
The questions came fast. So fast, I couldn’t answer them.
“You alone? What happened to the plane? Are there any survivors? What are you doing up here? Is there anyone alive? Are you sick? Did you touch anyone? Has anyone else been here?”
I painfully had my hands on my head trying to look brave but I felt like I was going to throw up. My mind went to a 7-11 near my house when I witnessed an arm robbery. I remember freezing and just watching the entire thing in slow motion, including one of the robbers pointing the shotgun at me. I was certain he was going to shoot me.
I felt the same way now.
But they kept their distance from me, barking questions but not waiting for answers.
The tension was causing me to shake. They kicked dirt at me and demanded more information but I didn’t know what to do. I barely could lift my head and that’s when I saw Mike coming from behind them.
He hit the first guy over the top of the head with a thick branch, dropping him immediately. The second guy discharged his rifle and I could hear the bullet whizz by my head and impact the plane. I tried to stand up but Mike had already recoiled and smashed the limb across his face. I got up and dove on top of him while Mike continued to hit him. Holding him down, I let him go when his body went limp.
Mike didn’t ask any questions but waited for a look from me. I nodded and Mike jumped to action.
He delivered a punitive kick into the ribs of the first guy as he grabbed the rifle and threw it away. He stripped the guy of his backpack and ripped his jacket off. Patting down his pockets, he found a folding knife and used it to cut a length of climbing rope the assailants had strapped on their bag.
Fly fishermen may not always catch fish, but we know how to tie knots. And Mike hog-tied the first attacker in record time with his hands bound behind his back with the extra rope lashing his feet.
I did the same the second man minus the kick to the ribs. The whipping Mike unleashed was more than enough to keep him down.
“What the fuck was that?” Mike said in almost a whisper after we secured them. He nearly fell over grabbing both of the rifles and stacking them against their gear.
“I got up to take a look and they jumped me,” I said still in shock. “I didn’t even hear them coming.”
“Jesus, man, I didn’t even ask how are you? How’s your head.”
“I got a screaming headache and feel like shitting my pants. I guarantee I have a concussion,” he said. “What happened last night?”
I recounted the young lady attacking us through the emergency door. He said he saw her body on the wing when he came around to stop the two hikers. He then wanted to know what they were yelling at me. I told him nothing we wouldn’t be asking under the circumstances minus the pointing of guns.
He shook his head.
“I thought I heard them ask you if you were sick.”
“Yeah, they did, but I don’t,” I said. “I wonder why they would want to know that.”
We heard the two men starting to moan. Inexplicably, Mike got up and kicked both of them in the ribs hard again.
“Why’d you do that?” I asked almost in a yell. “They’re not going anywhere.”
He just stood there for a moment, breathing heavily over their bodies.
“Nobody gets to fuck with us anymore,” Mike said. “And nobody points a fucking gun at my best friend.”
I cracked a small smile. Mike has always had my back.
“You think they’re alone?” I asked.
“I don’t know but I’d be surprised if they weren’t,” Mike said. “I’m more surprised the government or one of the agencies isn’t up here right now. Granted, we’re in the middle of nowhere, but there are still roads to get up to Lake Whitney.”
“I’ve never felt more alone right not, Bud,” I said. “But I know one thing—there’s no way in hell I’m spending another night up here.”
Mike removed the shells from both of the rifles and put the bullets in his pocket. I went through their bags and found nothing out of the ordinary: dry goods, change of clothes, maps, a paperback book, first aid kits, a pint of rum. There was one thing out of place, a canvas sack filled with tools and electronic devices.
“You think they’re building bombs out here?”
“I don’t know, but I’ve never seen a hunter with a hex key set,” Mike said.
I told him that I didn’t like having any more hexes around un.
Dragging the guns and the bags, we went back to our little setup and I said we should get out of here. For whatever reason, I didn’t even consider freeing them first. If I had doubts about Mike’s character kicking two unarmed, detained men, they were put aside when he asked how should we free them.
I didn’t offer any suggestion, but I knew immediately he was right. We couldn’t leave them up here tied up and alone.
“In fairness to these two assholes, they didn’t shoot you dead when they came across you. They could have drilled you immediately. And from what I heard, they sounded pretty confused—maybe even scared,” Mike said. “I say we wake them up, give them some food and water and walk down the mountain with them. Once we get into the truck, we’ll let them go. Honestly, I think we should even give them back their rifles. I doubt we’ll ever see them again.”
I asked if he really thought that was a good idea and he shrugged that mischievous shrug. Nothing more needed to be said. We were going on a hike with these fellows.
When I was in grad school, I wrote a paper about the role of the individual in a democracy using a movie theater as the primary example. The situation was a crowd theater watching a summer blockbuster of sorts when the audio on the film goes out. Since we live in a world without ushers and projectionists, 200+ people could be sitting in there waiting patiently for the problem to fix itself.
The problem is that the group is experiencing elements of the valence effect. The collective wishful thinking doesn’t get the sound back on the movie. It takes external pressures to resolve the situation. In this case, it means putting down the tub of popcorn and telling the manager. To fix problems, you have to address problems. Hope and prayer are totally acceptable in church, but not when things are going astray. Like when the sounds is turned off in a movie or if you’ve captured two men in the middle of the forest next to a downed commercial plane filled with undead or unnatural survivors.
I haven’t thought of this paper in years and I think it came rushing back to me as I realized all I wanted was to be back at the truck and heading home with no idea that I just watched a jumbo jet go down.
Mike started getting some breakfast put together. He was boiling water for coffee and oatmeal as I stood guard at the front of the plane. I was watching both the woman on the wing and the two guys, oscillating my head back and forth waiting for something to happen.
The plane had been making a very low, almost baritone noise since the attack. Mike said it had to be some generators kicking in or off, and it definitely had something to do with the emergency door opening. He was talking in low tones about his various theories on why the plane crashed, but I ignored him. Right now, all I care about is both of getting back to Salt Lake City in one piece and for me to find Jill.
I heard a moan.
Both Mike and me froze. From my position, I could see it wasn’t the two guys as they haven’t moved since we beat them up. It was coming from the plane. I crept to Mike as he grabbed one of the rifles.
“Dude, that’s coming from inside,” I said pointing at the emergency door.
Mike just nodded.
He calmly turned off the camping stove’s gas and grabbed on of the rifles. Reaching into his pocket, he loaded three bullets and started heading to the tip of the wing. I followed behind him. Even though every fiber in my body screamed get the fuck out of here, I followed Mike’s lead. Besides, it was my fault when I insisted we come back.
The woman on the wing hadn’t moved. But there was movement in the cabin.
“We’re all in strung out shape, but stay frosty and alert,” Mike said. “We can’t afford to let one of those bastards in here.”
“Dude, stay focused yourself,” I said snapped. “And quit quoting movies.”
He turned around and smiled. We probably watched Aliens a hundred times the first year we lived together. The fact that he had the wherewithal to make a joke boded well with me. In fairness, it would probably take a lot more than a concussion for him to stop quoting that movie.
I wish Mike had loaded the other gun. Probably didn’t because we both knew I don’t know how to shoot it. The groans were getting louder. I figured it had to be what we were referring to as “Normals” that were making the noise because the rotting dead haven’t moved an inch. We continued to the windows where I lost a ton of strength in my legs.
The woman I tackled last night had corroded into a pile of blacken, bleeding flesh. For whatever reason, it looked as if the blood had pooled out through her feet, leaving her face and arms that sickly, mummified look.
“Holy shit, Bill, it looks like they’re turning.”
“Yeah, but into what?”
Keeping our distance from the emergency door, we looked through the windows and the wind shot out of my lungs. The handful of normal looking people were flaying around, struggling with there seatbelts. It was exactly what had happened last night, but we weren’t hearing groans.
They were giggling.
Mike and I turned to each other. It was the two guys we had tied up.
“Help us! Let us go!” they both yelled. “Please!!!”
Why would murders shout please?
Mike was closer to the exit when a body squirmed out. It was a middle-aged business man wearing a dated three-piece suit. His hands were tensed in shaking balls and his neck looked like it could barely hold up the weight of his head.
“Whoa, Daddy-O,” Mike said spinning around. “Ah, you probably can’t understand what’s going on, hombre, but shit has gotten a little crazy. Why don’t you have a seat?”
He moved with the deliberation of a guy on his fourth Martini. Mike and I started pulling away.
“Sir, or whatever you are, you look sick and I need you to stay away from me.”
The shouting continued on the other side of the plane. It seemed to confuse the businessman as he looked at us and then almost over the plane. But our movement recaptured his eyes.
“Uh, Mike, I don’t want to tell you your business, but maybe you should shoot this guy.”
“Yeah, Billy, I was thinking the same.”
A second body crawled out of the emergency exit. The businessman looked at his companion, another middle-aged man dressed in sandals, shorts and a t-shirt, but excluding his wardrobe, they moved exactly the same. Herky-jerky in a labored fashion, they both started giggling and moving towards us.
“All right, guys, if you do not return to your seats and secure your safety belts, we’re going to turn this plane around or I’ll be forced to contact an air marshal.”
They’re giggling turned into laughter, freaking me out even more. Mike let out a forced snort, patting himself on the back for making them laugh when he made an abrupt move. Taking two steps towards the businessman, he raised the butt of the gun and crushed the man in the head.
His head split open like a melon. Blood and brains went everywhere like his head was filled with firecrackers.
The Tommy Bahamas guy quit laughing and let out a scream louder than any man I’ve ever heard. He was joined by the others in the plane as he charged at me with surprising speed. Raising both his fists, he dropped them through my shoulders, leveling me on the wing of the plane. Mike came to my defense, again, and tomahawked the gun through his head.
I was covered in more blood. He picked me up and said we need to put the emergency door back in. My head was pounding and I couldn’t breath but I could hear the giggling and hooting inside the plane. Even worse, the cries for help on the other side of the plane were getting louder and lauder. The emergency door weighed a ton, but we were able to lift it. Getting a running start towards the opening, we both saw more of the normal people freed from their chair and making their way to the exit. We missed the first time we tried to put it in, but our second attempt was perfect and miraculously, a locking sound clicked and the wave of normal was stopped momentarily.
“What the fuck!” I said wiping blood and brain off of my forehead.
“Double fuck, bro,” mike said kicking all three of the bodies off the wing. “Let’s go get those guys and get the fuck out of here.”
I figured if they could open the door once, they could do it again. I fought through the pain, ran to the end of the wing and jumped down. Instead of going around the front of the plane, we sprinted around the end section and came to a halt when we saw the yellow slide. The front door had been opened and the evacuation slide had been deployed. Normals were jumping out of the plane and moving where we left the two men.
They were screaming in terror.
Mike acted first and ran to their defense. Using the gun like a club, he whacked the people while I pulled out my pocket knife and cut the guys free. There were no words exchanged. They jumped into the fray, taking branches and using them to beat the laughing mob.
In that moment of all of the confusion, I had a thought. If their heads seemed to explode with even the slightest amount of blunt force, we needed to cut them off at the pass. I ran to the slide and punctured it. The escaping gas shot the knife out of my hands, nearly severing my fingers. Collecting the buck knife, I deflated the second side of the slide, careful to use both hands.
The next set of normal who fell out of the plane landed hard on the ground causing their heads to explode on the impact. Four more followed to their (second?) death but the other giggling masses learned from the others, stopping their laughter and exchanging it with menacing grunts and groans.
Mike and the two guys finished off the pool of Normals as we panted in the aftermath, covered in blood and brains and desperately trying to hold it all together.
Mike broke the silence.
“Well, I guess we owe you an apology.”
“Yeah, I think you do.”
“Sorry,” Mike said. “My name is Mike Butters. This guy covered in glop is named Bill Cooper. I was thinking of getting the hell out of here. Want to come along?”
Ben Raskin works as a writer, bartender and podcaster. Follow him on Twitter @BennyRaskin. Author of three books, Cockpit is his fourth serial. If you’re interested in PDFs of Hibernate, Decade or Shivers, send an email to email@example.com. Yeah, he makes a lot of grammatical mistakes, but at least the spelling isn’t that bad.