“Lone White Seagull” by Geoffrey W. Cole
The first officer announced that the plane was lost three hours after they entered the cloud. Ergot waited for the announcement to finish and then flipped open his notebook to find the trailing edge of the poem he’d been working on. In the seat beside him, an old man snored, a thin string of drool dangling from his clean-shaven chin. Everyone else in the plane erupted in confused outrage.
Before he could get a single word onto the page, Ergot’s girlfriend Dina arrived at the end of his row, her purse in one hand, the other balled into a fist she used to nudge the old man awake.
“Did I miss the breakfast cart?” the old man said. He wiped his chin.
“Seeing as the plane is lost,” she said, “I’d like to sit with my boyfriend. Do you mind?”
The old man gathered his things.
“Shouldn’t we all stay in our assigned seats?” Ergot said.
“If they bring you the kosher breakfast,” the old man said. “Send it my way.”
Dina settled into the old man’s place.
“Isn’t it nice to finally sit together?” she said.
After their first vacation, she’d caught on to Ergot’s habit of booking them in separate seats so that he could write; she’d never said anything about if before, but today she didn’t give a damn.
“It is nice,” he said.
“What’s with the cloud?” she said.
He shrugged. The cloud and the gray dawn light through which they flew figured heavily in the long poem he was composing. His notebook lay open in his lap, the couplet he’d been working on half-finished on the page.
She looked down at the pen hovering over paper.
“Go ahead and finish it,” she said. “I’ll watch something.”
Dina slipped on headphones and flipped through the movies on the seat-back screen. Ergot brought his pen to the end of the couplet:
Staring in through the cabin window
Dawn waited gray and
Not Keats, he knew. That’s why he needed to keep working, but he couldn’t find the next word.
Graham went through the hand-written calculations in his log book one more time. In the three hours since they’d flown into the cloud that glowed dull gray through the windscreen, they should have travelled over two thousand kilometers. That would put them somewhere over northern Quebec, and it should have been well past dawn.
The instruments wouldn’t corroborate any of his pencil-work: the GPS was down, no one answered him on the radio or sat phone, the air pressure gauge indicated sea level atmospheric pressure, even though the altimeter said they still flew at twelve thousand meters.
“Paul,” Graham said to the captain. “Can you look this over and tell me what I’m doing wrong?”
The captain accepted the logbook but he didn’t look at the open page.
He handed it back to Graham.
“So now what?” Graham said,
The captain took a pull from his flask. Graham called the flight attendants and sent them out with another round for the passengers.
Two hours after Dina joined him, the flight attendants came by with the drink cart again. Ergot ordered a White Russian.
“Are you sure you need another?” Dina said, the nutritionist in her loathing what the calories and fat would do to Ergot’s arteries.
“Make it a double,” Ergot said.
He took a sip and went back to the page. Poetry poured out of his pen. Ergot depended on White Russians to get him through his first million words. In a poetry class years ago, an instructor told him that the first million words any author produced were crap. Only after those words had been shat onto the page did the writer produce saleable guano. By his most generous estimate, Ergot still had six hundred and fifty thousand words to go. White Russians, Ergot learned early on, were poetic laxatives.
Haikus came easy when he was drunk, so he ripped a few out to describe the other passenger who soured around him:
Seven whiskey Sam
Drench’d in sweat demands an eighth
Given nuts instead
It wasn’t just the drunks who made it onto his pages:
Mother placates child
Shut yer hole ya little brat
While Ergot scribbled, Dina turned on her phone and connected to the plane’s wifi. All the previous e-mails she’d sent since they entered the cloud had bounced back to her. She had clients waiting for her in Seattle; she hated to leave them waiting. Ergot had sales meetings too, though she was certain he hadn’t thought of those meetings since he booked them before their vacation. She tried to get a message through on Facebook, then on Twitter, but neither let her create new posts. The most recent update on Twitter had been posted six hours earlier, about the time they’d entered the cloud. She turned off the phone. She couldn’t sit here any longer. She unbuckled her seat belt.
“Hey folks,” the PA crackled. “This is your first officer. We’re going to try to get out of this cloud, so please turn off any electronics, stow any loose items, bring your chairs to the upright position, and buckle yourselves in. Don’t worry, we’ll have you home soon.”
Dina put her seatbelt back on. Ergot kept scribbling.
Graham clicked off the PA and looked over at Paul. Sweat matted what hair remained on the captain’s balding head and he kept picking at his left epaulette.
“If you’re not going to help me fly,” Graham said. “Will you at least keep an eye on the instruments?”
“Aye aye, sir,” Paul said.
Graham pulled back on the yoke. They started to climb. Clouds rolled by, gray, featureless, and luminous with the dawn. After a long climb, an alarm sounded and lights flashed on the instrument panel. They’d hit the stall altitude.
“What happened to watching the instruments?”
“I was watching.”
Still no change in the cloud. Graham edged the plane higher. The alarms blared on. At that altitude, the air pressure was so low that the wings could lose lift and they could fall out of the sky. But they didn’t. The Airbus kept gliding through the gray cloud while the stall alarm squawked and the captain whispered to himself in the next seat.
“That’s odd,” Paul said.
Graham levelled off and then eased the plane into a gentle descent. Nothing changed beyond the windscreen, just endless gray cloud, but the altimeter rolled backward. Once they hit two thousand meters without any noticeable change in the air pressure, air speed, or the impenetrable clouds outside the cockpit window, he climbed back up to safe cruising speed.
“Can’t go under it,” his captain said. “Can’t go over it. Can’t go around it. Gotta go through it.”
Paul took a pull on the empty flask.
“Have you ever performed an emergency landing?” Graham said.
“Only in simulation.”
Graham glanced at his watch: almost seven hours now since they’d entered the cloud. The fuel levels hadn’t dropped since then, but he didn’t trust his instruments and he didn’t want to get caught without fuel at twelve thousand meters. But landing blind?
Graham kept the plane flying level and stared into the cloud.
Once the pilots finished their maneuvers, Ergot slipped out his notebook. He’d always been embarrassed by the hand-scrawled title, Poetry in Motion, so named as he only found time to write during taxi and train rides, flights, and ferry crossings, but now he didn’t care. All he wanted to do was write. The delay had been intolerable. During the climb and descent, poetry accumulated as a pressure in his skull; more and more words filled a limited volume and if he didn’t get them onto the page, he knew he would either lose them or explode. The words burst out of him in a torrent of black ink.
Dina looked past her boyfriend, through the window. The gray light reminded her of a morning, years before she’d met Ergot, her first morning in her then-new one-bedroom apartment. That day, she’d thought she’d never feel more alone. She slipped her headphones back on and pretended to watch another movie.
Twelve hours after they entered the luminous cloud, Paul climbed out of his seat. Graham smelled urine on the captain as he squeezed past.
“Where are you going?” he said.
“For some air,” Paul said.
Paul stepped out of the cockpit and tipped his hat to one of the pretty stewardesses. Not flight attendants, no; he hated that term. His wife had been a stewardess, before they were married. He hadn’t seen her or the kids for three weeks. The instrument readings reminded him of a dream that afflicted him almost every night he spent away from his family. In the dream, he piloted a flight that never ended.
He looked out the tiny porthole window in the emergency door. The same gray cloud. All he had to do was wake himself up and he’d find himself in bleach-scented sheets in another anonymous airport hotel with half a bottle of rye on the desk.
He opened the emergency door.
A blast of daffodil-smelling air rifled the page where Ergot worked. He looked up in time to see the captain drop out of the plane, his knees clutched to his chest like he was pulling a cannonball into a neighbor’s swimming pool.
Oxygen masks dropped from the ceiling above their heads. The first officer came on the PA but Ergot couldn’t make out what he said above the screaming passengers. He tried to help Dina put on her mask while she yelled at him to put his on his first.
As Ergot breathed forced air that reeked of plastic, he forget about his notebook and the six hundred and twenty-eight thousand words he still had to excrete. Every movie he’d ever seen had led him to believe that when an airplane door opened in mid-flight, the plane was doomed. After thirty-five years on the planet, Ergot wasn’t ready to stain some snowy tundra red. He wanted to marry Dina and make babies. He wanted to build a home on the Olympic Peninsula away from all the pollution and carnage of Seattle. He wanted to put those million words behind him and start writing good poetry.
He turned to Dina, her eyes wide and terrified behind the yellow mask. He could do it, he knew. He could ask her now.
The first officer appeared at the end of the aisle. He had the bronze skin and white smile of a tennis instructor. When he raised his hands to ask for quiet, the passengers gave it to him. Even Ergot’s words died in his mouth. The first officer took the phone from the flight attendant and his voice soothed them from the PA.
“There’s nothing wrong with the airplane,” he said. “But there was something wrong with the captain. I’ve worked with Paul for a long time and something got to him today. The important thing is we’re safe. We’re just lost. There’s a problem, though. With the emergency door open, we can’t keep flying. I’m going to have to bring the plane down.”
Oxygen masks muffled the cries of alarm and terror from the seated passengers.
Behind Dina’s closed eyes, she too watched the same movies as Ergot. She too imagined that this was the end. A successful business, , children, maybe even marriage, all the things she’d ever hoped for, gone. At least she would never have to move to the Olympic Peninsula. She hated country life in general, the Peninsula in particular: too many mountains stood between her and the real life of the city.
A warm hand touched her shoulder. She opened her eyes and found the first officer’s bronze face above her.
“Please bring your seat all the way up,” he said.
Then he moved on to the next passenger. Ergot’s hand slipped between hers and gave it a squeeze.
Graham sat down behind the control yoke and trimmed altitude.
That flowery scent still tickled his nostrils. He hadn’t worn an oxygen mask as he walked down the aisle calming his passengers; he hadn’t needed to. At twelve thousand meters he shouldn’t have been able to draw breath, but the air that came in through the emergency exit reminded him of a warm breeze blowing into his parent’s home on the farm in Iowa. He pushed the thought to the back of his mind. He had to concentrate.
“Ten thousand meters,” he called out on the PA.
Ergot and Dina held hands as the first officer called out the diminishing altitude. Ergot searched for words; anything would be better than the sound of his own breath echoing in the plastic mask.
“Four thousand meters.”
“When we get out of here,” Ergot said.
“We’re breaking up,” Dina said.
The words jumped out of her. No real planning lay behind them, but as she spoke them, she knew they were correct. She couldn’t stay with a man who preferred to scribble poetry than comfort her when she needed him most.
“One thousand meters.”
Ergot stared into the cloud outside his window. Dina’s fingernails dug into his damp palm. But she’d just said she wanted to let him go.
Dawn waited gray and deceitful
He had to write it down, but she clutched his writing hand.
“Five hundred meters.”
Everyone on the plane held their breath.
Someone made the sound of a dying mouse.
Graham, sweat pouring down his sideburns, his hands slick on the yoke, stared into the cloud looking for something, anything, on which he could set down the 120-tonne airplane.
“Negative ten meters.”
Breaths expelled in a flurry of questions.
Graham pounded his fist against the treacherous instrument as it continued to spiral below sea level. The air pressure was no different here than it had been at twelve thousand meters. Unless he was flying over the Dead Sea, the instruments had to be wrong.
“One thousand meters below sea level,” he said, and he wondered if the problem lay not with the instruments, but with the world itself.
When the first officer spoke through the PA, Dina could see his calm, blue eyes.
“I don’t know what to say,” he said. “We should have hit something. Some ground, some water, some ice, some trees. A widow’s hut in the Northwest Territories. Something.”
The speaker clicked and went quiet.
She stripped off her oxygen mask and exhaled as much air as she could.
“This can’t be happening,” she said.
“Then we’re not breaking up?” Ergot said.
She unbuckled her seatbelt.
“We’re not supposed to leave our seats,” he said.
“Rules apply so well here,” she said.
“You’re not going to jump, are you?”
“There has to be some explanation for this.”
Ergot watched her move down the aisle. He had an explanation: this could all be an acid flashback. That would explain why Dina wanted to leave him. He’d never touched the stuff himself, but Ergot’s mother had gifted him with pre-natal acid trips. Before she died, she used to regale him with stories of their shared hallucinations.
“I felt like Jessica Atreides,” she’d claimed. “After she took the spice melange, she could communicate with her daughter in the womb. Don’t you remember?”
He didn’t remember, but his spinal cord did, and it occasionally secreted a bit of lysergic acid diethylamide to remind him of old Ma. Those flashbacks, which came in the form of brief sensations of being immersed in creamed corn, or having the wallpaper in the apartment he shared with Dina play Gershwin for him, had nothing in common with the hours they’d already spent on the plane.
And as much as he would like to believe that this was all some temporary madness, there was one glaring fact that proved this was real: in his hallucinations, he was an excellent poet.
That meant Dina really did want to leave.
Other passengers had the same idea as his girlfriend; they wandered to the front of the plane in search of answers.
Ergot looked for his in his notebook.
Dina stood a meter back from the opening in the plane’s fuselage. She expected whipping winds and ear-piercing pressure changes, but all she found was a gentle, flowery breeze. Other passengers joined her.
“Maybe we crashed,” said a hipster in a wrinkled flannel shirt. “And this is the afterlife.”
“Maybe we flew into the Bermuda Triangle,” said a woman who dyed her hair two shades too dark.
“We were flying over the Arctic,” Dina said. “I’ve never heard of a Baffin Island Parallelogram.”
“Maybe we’ve flown into another dimension,” the first officer said. When Dina and the others turned to look at him, he said, “Don’t worry, the plane’s on auto-pilot. And if there was anything to hit, I think we’d have hit it already. Now would you please step away from the emergency exit? It isn’t safe.”
“That’s your plan?” Dina said. “Step away from the exit?”
Graham looked the woman up and down. He remembered this cute brunette from earlier, and she was even cuter when she was angry.
“If you know what’s going on, I’m all ears.”
“I’m a nutritionist,” she said. “I have no idea. But this plane is full of people. Someone must know something.”
The way her curls framed her face reminded him of a girl in high school whose name he couldn’t remember but whose bra strap always showed on her right shoulder. He’d never had a woman in his cockpit; all the other pilots he knew had.
“You’re right,” he said. “Someone must know something. And you said you’re a nutritionist, right? Good. Stick around. We might be on this flight for a long time; we could use your advice.”
The PA crackled above Ergot’s head.
“Hi folks. We’re at a bit of a loss up here. If there are any physicists, meteorologists, priests, rabbis, imams, engineers, or that sort of thing on board, could you please join me in the First Class section to try to sort this out?”
Passengers who considered themselves “that sort of thing” filed past Ergot. His mother, he was sure, would have joined them, muddling the conversation with insight filtered through her personal religion-philosophy, a drug-addled mess that Ergot called Buddhish.
Ergot decided that his time was best served in his seat. He was on a roll. Words poured out of him. Before he quite realized it, he was writing across the back cover of his notebook. He rifled through Dina’s purse until he found her Sudoku book and then he started to fill the blank spaces between puzzles.
As he wrote, he tried to accept that she wanted to leave him. Why wouldn’t she? As a hot tub salesman he was below average, and as a poet, his true calling, he still had half-a-million words until he was competent. Maybe when he got there, when he wrote the kind of poem that really showed how he felt, she’d change her mind. He realized this bordered on teenage delusion, but what else did he have?
Dina and the others discussed the problem for almost three hours. The two physicists argued about stratification in the vapor layers of gas giants. The sole chemist agreed with the dentist, that they should sample the cloud to determine if it was toxic. The engineers wanted to design a device to lower someone into the cloud, but they couldn’t decide between seatbelts or blankets to use as a rope. The Hindu priest, the rabbi, the imam, and the minister all counselled prayer, though they disagree on the target of those prayers. The only philosopher, a PhD student, decided he had to pick a new topic for his thesis. The meteorologist predicted more cloud in the forecast.
Dina calculated how best to ration out the remaining food. While they talked, she tolerated the attention from the first officer. She knew his type — blond, tanned, a smile calculated to elicit the electricity she let it generate in her. When the conference wrapped up, he volunteered to help her go through the remaining meals.
As they sorted through lukewarm boxes of chicken à la king and pasta with marinara sauce, he said, “Would you like to see the cockpit?”
She said, “I should see if they have any snacks at the back of the plane.”
When she returned to her seat, Ergot was filling her Sudoku book with his so-called poetry.
Twenty hours into the cloud. Thurgood Strombolite, over six feet tall and weighing almost three hundred and fifty pounds, sat in the very back row beside the now-vile toilets. He turned up the music in his headphones so he wouldn’t have to listen to the old man struggling inside the toilet behind his head, but the music wouldn’t go loud enough. The toilet flushed, the door cracked. A stench rolled forward, causing the people around him to gag.
Thurgood stuffed his fist into his mouth, eyes watering. This was punishment for his decades of drinking and fighting, and most of all for that night, so many years before, in his cousin’s house. The clean-shaven old man walked past Thurgood, then stopped, clutched his belly, and turned back toward the toilet.
“Thought I was done,” he said as he ran into the stall.
“Enough,” Thurgood said.
He squeezed out of his seat, walked to the back of the plane, opened another emergency exit door, and performed a neat swan-dive into the gray.
Dina walked down the aisle and tried to calm those passengers who shared Thurgood’s inclination.
“We’re going to make it,” she said, echoing the first officer who worked the row opposite her. “Don’t worry. We’ll be there soon.”
She let the first officer stop at Ergot’s row.
Once the crowd had calmed, she sent the flight attendants out with carefully rationed scraps of airline food. Being an international flight, they were better stocked than domestic trips, but there really wasn’t enough for more than a few hundred calories per person, including drinks. At least the potable water levels hadn’t diminished. Like the fuel, the gauges indicated that they hadn’t used a drop of drinking water since they entered the cloud.
The small meal calmed the passengers. Dina remained at the front of the plane, with the flight attendants, going through the remaining meals again and again to ensure everyone received their fair share.
Ergot finished the Sudoku book and moved around the plane looking for more paper. Several passengers offered their notebooks and journals, which he hoarded in the overhead compartment. Instead of a title like Poetry in Motion, he named each notebook after the number of words he estimated he could squeeze into it. With the notebooks he’d stockpiled, he would get to within two hundred thousand words of the one million mark. And he really was getting better.
A day later, Dina helped the flight attendants deliver another rationed meal. Little remained. Breakfast consisted of two pretzels, five salted peanuts, and a few mouthfuls of orange juice or beer per person.
“Is this kosher?” said the old man who’d once sat beside Ergot.
“The pretzels are, I think,” she said.
He threw the peanuts in her face.
That set off the crowd. Handfuls of nuts and pretzels pelted Dina and the flight attendants. As the passengers rose out to their feet and raided the food carts, she ran to the front of the plane and pounded on the cockpit door.
Graham opened the door. Fists flew, babies screamed, and people surged toward the emergency exits. The cute brunette nutritionist stood between the mob leaders and the gaping hole in the plane. Graham grabbed her hand and pulled her into the cockpit as angry passengers surged into the gray.
He bolted the door behind her.
Ergot stopped trying to chronicle the revolt when he realized that Dina wasn’t sitting beside him. He dropped the notebook and jumped into the aisle. Warm air perfumed by rose petals washed into the plane as more of the emergency exits were opened, the doors thrown out into the gray.
In his peripheral vision, Ergot saw people fluttering out of the plane. Later, he would write:
Seedpods from a spring maple / hoping for rebirth / pray to the wind
He ran the length of the plane. A fringe of brown curls fluttered in the breeze above the right wing-top exits. He grabbed for her, but the curls belonged to a teenage girl who looked at Ergot, shrugged, and then walked onto the wing where she stared into the gray for a moment before skipping off. More people leapt into the dawn — gray and insatiable — as he searched for her face among the passengers.
As more and more of them de-planed, Ergot grew frantic. Had she been one of the first to jump? What good was his fucking poetry if she was already gone?
He checked every toilet and pounded on the pilot’s door, shouting Dina’s name. The pilot answered with something Ergot couldn’t quite make out.
When the last passengers finished their unscheduled departures, Ergot returned to his seat, shaking. Less than half the passengers remained. He sat in his seat for a long time staring at the seat-back screen on which the movie Dina had been watching was paused. He couldn’t remember when she’d last sat beside him.
At some point he found the notebook, this one labelled Twenty Five Thousand, and he poured his grief onto the page.
Dina emerged from the cockpit and hurried over to the First Class bathroom. She cleaned herself as best she could. Her skin still tingled from where the pilot’s fingers had pressed into her flesh, where his tongue had licked her.
“If we are going to fly here forever,” he’d said. “I’ll be happy as long as you’re with me.”
Bullshit post-coital romanticizing, she knew, but it was fun to pretend.
She walked back down the plane to the row that smelled like Ergot.
“You’re still writing?” she said.
He threw down the notebook when she spoke and wrapped his arms around her waist.
“I thought you jumped,” he said into her belly.
“So now what?” she said. “We just sit here?”
“We’re sure as hell not going to sit here,” he said. He opened the overhead compartment and dumped a pile of books into his carry-on bag. “We’re going to First Class.”
Ergot left the notebook where it had fallen on the floor. What did it matter? She was alive. He didn’t know where she’d been and something in the way she refused to meet his gaze, and in her disheveled hair, and the button missing from her shirt, told him he shouldn’t ask. She was here. That’s all that mattered.
They settled into the newly available First Class seats. Other passengers had the same idea. Ergot had never enjoyed such luxury. A whole series of new films were available on a screen twice the size of the eye-fatigue inducing screens in the economy section. Dina was happy to watch a movie with him – one of the old black and white classics she loved — and after that she dozed.
While she slept, Ergot broke open a fresh notebook and described her sleeping form in verse. The flowery smell of the dawn filled the plane but he thought he detected something else on her, a scent he couldn’t place and that his mind told him was best to ignore. In his poems, she became a nymph, a goddess, a slender crane, as he worked further and further toward competency.
Unbroken cloud filled the windshield in front of Graham. For how many weeks now had he been staring at it? Two? Three? Could it be four weeks? He couldn’t remember.
The brunette, bent over the instrument panel, pushed her rump into his hips. He blinked and resumed thrusting.
After he finished, he kept staring out the window.
“What do you see out there?” she said.
Graham didn’t answer. He heard her slip back into her clothes, clothes that stunk of their lovemaking and her sweat and his growing desperation. The cockpit door clicked shut behind her.
How many of his passengers had jumped now? Two-thirds? Maybe even three quarters of those who’d started the flight with him. He wondered what they found inside the cloud.
The hesitant tap on Ergot’s shoulder broke his concentration. A black man with thick drifts of dandruff on the plastic frames of his glasses handed Ergot a shopping bag full of books.
“I hear you’re looking for writing material,” he said. “I’m done with these. There should be some blank space you can use.”
“Thanks,” Ergot said.
“What are you writing?”
“No stories, novels, anything like that?”
“Too bad,” he said. “I don’t read poetry. Take care of those books.”
Then he walked out the emergency exit and tumbled into the dawn.Ergot traced his descent in his verse, the words making a parabolic arc across the page. And it was good. Really good. He was near the one million mark. Maybe one hundred thousand words away. The tip of his pen vibrated, an energy that flowed from the pen to his fingers, up his wrist to the elbow, then the shoulder, neck, and when he expected it to turn toward his brain, it descended. Toward his loins.
Weren’t the gonads the source of all poetry, the source of all art? Those too weak to fight for mates sucked beauty out of the universe and distilled it onto the cave wall to attract a partner. His art, he knew, was meant only for her. But it wasn’t ready yet. Even with the black man’s novels, he wouldn’t have enough paper to reach those million words.
He took a breath and looked down the length of the plane. Empty seats, blank walls, carpeted floor, and a plastic ceiling. And he smiled. He’d found his pages.
Dina walked down the aisle among the plane’s dwindling inhabitants.
“How goes the video game?” she asked a young boy who played a portable game console.
He grunted and kept playing.
“Still doing your push-ups?” she asked the lawyer in the filthy suit.
“Every morning,” he said. “Find anything else to eat?”
“Sorry,” she said.
No food remained, they’d finished it weeks ago, but to Dina’s amazement, they didn’t need it. Those first few days everyone had wanted to eat — a hard habit to break — but after they got over the mental dependency on food, Dina discovered no physical hardship from being without. It was like the plane, which kept burning the same fuel to stay aloft, and Ergot’s pen, which never ran out of ink. After enduring so many shocks, including the fact that she was now officially fucking the first officer, this one shouldn’t have been that surprising, but it bowled her over. Eating was her profession and her favorite hobby. Whatever this place was, it had taken that from her too.
She continued down the aisle. Everyone had something that kept them on the plane. She stopped by an artist who worked on sketches with chunks of charcoal that never diminished. Several computer artists created glowing shapes on their screens. A few men and women, like the lawyer, obsessed over their fitness. The Mormon family over the wings spent every hour in prayer.
As she passed, their matriarch said: “Care to join us today, dear?”
“We still don’t mind,” the woman said.
Dina walked past them. Other passengers subsisted on entertainment. Some read novels — like the black man who’d just thrown himself out the exit — and others watched movies and TV.
Toward the back of the plane, she came to a man on his computer. In her weeks of walking the aisle, she didn’t remember ever asking him what he was working on.
“What’s keeping you on the plane?” she said.
“The Internet,” he said.
“All of them,” he said. “I wrote a program that makes sure I never hit the same page twice. Most of it is pretty dull, the rest of it’s porn, but it’s better than throwing myself out the door. What’s keeping you here?”
Dina blinked. No one had ever asked her before. She rarely spoke to Ergot, but when she did, he assured her he’d have a poem if only she’d wait a bit longer. So she waited and fucked the pilot. She didn’t think Ergot knew. She wasn’t sure she would care if he did. She also wasn’t sure why she cared about his damn poem.
“I take care of everyone else,” she said. “That’s enough for me.”
When the girl walked into his cockpit, some eight weeks after they’d entered the cloud, Graham figured it out.
“We’re stuck in the dawn,” he said as she slipped off the shirt she’d slipped off so many times before. “In the exact moment the sun crests the horizon and brings light back into the world.”
“Let’s do it differently today,” she said as he took off his cap. “Surprise me.”
“The dawn is always moving around the earth, always chasing the night and giving birth to the day. It just goes round and round and round, and somehow it’s swept us along with it.”
Dina put a hand over his mouth. She didn’t need two poets in her life.
Ergot composed a quatrain on the last patch of bare wall at the back of the plane. Then he stood; the walls and ceiling of the plane were now covered in his poetry. All the unoccupied seats were also well versed. Even the interior walls of the toilets were filled with his poetic graffiti.
Somewhere around row twenty-four he had passed the million-word mark but to his surprise, he just kept getting better, so he’d continued. It still wasn’t Keats or Whitman, but it improved with each pass of his felt-tipped pen. He just needed more surface area.
One part of the plane was still poetry-free: the cockpit. He’d avoided it for the last few weeks. He didn’t want to disturb the pilot, who was busy keeping them all alive. Dina checked in on him every now and then; he’d seen her go in almost every day. She was in there right now. Surely they wouldn’t mind if he filled their wall-space too.
As he walked toward the cockpit, he tried to push back what he’d feared for so long: Dina had said she wanted to break up when they landed. They hadn’t landed, not yet, so they were still together. But they weren’t together. Like Schrodinger’s cat, their relationship was both alive and dead at the same time, and he didn’t want to be the one to open the box to collapse the duality.
He heard motion inside the cockpit. He shouldn’t need to knock, should he? He should be able to just walk right in.
He led with his pen.
Dina heard the door open but she didn’t bother turning around to see who’d come in. While the first officer worked above her, she stared at the gray; even after all these weeks, it hadn’t changed. Nothing could remain the same for so long.
“Dina?” Ergot said.
He stood in the doorway, his black felt-tipped pen clutched like some pathetic weapon, the expression on his face that of a young child who has just had his suspicions about the Easter Bunny confirmed.
“Just a minute,” the first officer said.
Ergot stepped back.
“Ergie, wait,” Dina said.
He let the door swing closed.
Dina slipped out from under the first officer. He didn’t seem to care. She put her clothes back on and found that Graham had settled, naked, into his seat. He took up the control yoke.
“I’m going to try to bring us down,” he said.
Dawn ended at the ground, Graham decided. If they could only touch the ground, they’d escape the perpetual dawn. Then he could leave this damn plane.
He pushed the control yoke forward and the plane tipped into a dive.
Dina rushed out into the passenger compartment. Of the dozen people still in the plane, not one of them was Ergot, though he’d left his mark. Poetry covered every surface: the seats, the walls, even the emergency procedure brochures slipped into the seat-back pockets. And she found herself in so many of those words.
The plane tilted up in front of her like a steep hill. She pulled herself forward, using the seats as hand-holds
“Have you seen the poet?” she asked the boy with the game console.
“Where’s Ergot?” she asked the lawyer who was doing chin-ups on the overhead compartment. He shook his head.
“My boyfriend?” she asked the Mormons.
“We’ll pray for him,” the matriarch answered.
Then she arrived at the Internet Completist’s seat.
“Please tell me you’ve seen him,” she said.
“Nope,” the Completist said. “But I read that there is usually a hatch that leads down into the luggage compartment somewhere in the passenger area.”
Walking back to the front of the plane was more like falling. Near the compartment where the flight attendants used to sit, she found the hatch. She pulled it back and climbed down a narrow ladder.
Ergot sat beside an opened suitcase. He scrawled black letters onto someone’s white T-shirt and as he did he counted in his mind: 1,273,462; 1,273,463; 1,273,464. Around him the other suitcases shifted and groaned as the plane adopted an ever-steeper angle.
“We have to go,” she said.
“Why don’t you go with him?” he said.
He kept scrawling.
“Read it to me,” she said. “You’re good enough now, aren’t you?”
He nodded. He was good enough. But he wasn’t finished. Hell, he’d barely begun.
Her hand touched his. She pulled him away from the suitcase and all the surface area that he could fill with words. Permanent ink, that was what his felt-tipped pen promised. And wasn’t that what poetry was really for? If it couldn’t convince those we loved to love us in return, it could at least mark the world, to show we were there.
“I’m sorry, Ergie,” she said. “We have to go.”
She led him up the ladder and into the plane. The other passengers sat in their seats, so absorbed in their books or computers or whatever so fascinated anyone that they could ignore the steep pitch of the plane and the whine of the engines as the first officer behind the closed door pointed the plane at some place he believed might end it all.
She led Ergot to the nearest emergency exit. Calm air that smelled of spring flowers in bloom wafted by. Jasmine, maybe. And gray cloud, broken only by the long curving sweep of the wing.
A white, empty wing.
“I still have so much left to write,” he said.
“You’ll always have more to write,” she said. “But I’m going. You can come with me or you can stay.”
He looked at the T-shirt clutched in his hand and the empty white span of wing. So many words could fit along that slender limb. And then he looked at Dina. How long had it been since he’d last looked into her gray eyes? Really looked.
When he did, he couldn’t find a single word that did those eyes justice. After so many hundreds of thousands, he couldn’t find even one word that was good enough for her.
“Will you come with me?” she said.
He took her hand.
As they fell, they turned so that he could see the plane as it dove away beneath them.
Ergot laughed as he whispered in Dina’s ear:
A lone white seagull
Her guts filled with poetry
Shits rare guano
Never to be harvested
The plane vanished into the gray and they were left alone, descending. Neither knew when or even if the descent would end, but they held on to each other and shared whispered words on the flower-scented wind.
|Geoffrey W. Cole’s short fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in such publications as Clarkesworld, Orson Scott Card’s Intergalactic Medicine Show, AE — The Canadian Science Fiction Review, On Spec, Dark Recesses, and New Worlds. Geoff has degrees in biology and engineering, and lives with his wonderful wife in Vancouver, Canada. Geoff is a member of SF Canada and SFWA. Visit Geoff at www.geoffreywcole.com.|